By: Justin Butts Photo by: Rachel Benavides
Tomatoes are native to the lush, cool, rainy mountains of Peru. Hernan Cortez was the first European to taste tomatoes when he encountered the Aztec Empire in 1519. Cortez sent tomato plants home to Spain, and they quickly spread around the world.
The French called tomatoes “love apples” because they believed them to be an aphrodisiac. However, early American colonists mistakenly thought tomatoes were poisonous – they called them “wolf peaches.” Ironically, Americans, so close to the Aztec heartland, were the last people in the world to adopt tomatoes after President Thomas Jefferson popularized them in the U.S.
Tomatoes are difficult to grow in the hot, dry weather of the Coastal Bend. The typical tomato plant nationally yields between 5 to 20 pounds of fruit. But these techniques will help you produce more than 50 pounds of ripe, red tomatoes from each of the plants in your garden!
First, select tomato varieties that mature quickly (Early Girl) and others that thrive in the heat of summer (Solar Fire, Heatwave). This provides early season production and extends yields through the heat of the long summer. The smaller the variety (Juliette, Super Sweet 100), the easier they are to grow.
Shoddy, concentric-ring trellises will likely collapse under the weight of the healthy plants grown with these techniques. Use sections of hog panel wired to metal t-posts, or a similar sturdy structure, to hold up your vigorous vines.
Most importantly, mulch your tomato plants thickly (up to 12 inches or deeper!) with native leaf mulch. An ultra-thick layer of leaf mulch keeps the soil cool and enables your plants to bear fruit in the hottest weather. Tomato production and plant health increases with each inch of native leaf mulch applied.
A Need-to-Know Basis
Plant tomatoes after February 15. Grow in well-composted, well-drained soil. Space at 36”. Bury transplants 2/3 of the way into the ground. Each of the hairs down the stem is a potential root, and a vigorous root system makes a more prolific plant. Dust the leaves with horticultural corn meal (from a local feed store) to prevent the fungal diseases that cause yellow or black spots on tomato leaves.
The sweetness and flavor of tomatoes are determined by the amount of natural potassium in the soil. Potassium helps transfer glucose from the plant to the fruit. Wood ash from native trees is the best way to add potassium and other minerals. Pour several handfuls of native wood ash into the hole when planting. Also, add several handfuls of crushed oyster shells to provide calcium, which helps prevent blossom end rot.
“Nothing beats a fresh picked off the vine ripe tomato, especially from your own back yard. My two favorite heirloom varieties of recent seasons are the Cherokee purple and green zebra. They are bursting with both vibrant colors and delicious flavor. They have so many possibilities, but sliced with some buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil is my go to.”
— Christian Bernard, @sugarbakersbistro
Use companion planting to strengthen and protect tomatoes. Plant four collard plants and/or a dozen marigolds around the base of each tomato. Collards emit an odor that repels bad insects from your tomatoes, while marigolds repel nematodes. As a bonus, you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of greens and gorgeous flowers all summer!