Tomatoes are unquestionably the most popular vegetable for backyard gardeners

Tomatoes are unquestionably the most popular vegetable for backyard gardeners.  But it wasn’t always like that.  In fact, the tomato is actually something of a new comer at the American table.

Believe it or not, tomatoes used to be thought of as poisonous.  Tomatoes do belong to the poisonous nightshade family, which didn’t help matters, but so do the potato, pepper, and eggplant, and they have been considered edible vegetables for centuries.  Part of the reason tomatoes were avoided may have been because they weren’t native to Europe.

They originated in South and Central America, and were first brought to Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors in the sixtieth century.

The English weren’t impressed by their food value; they grew tomatoes on trellises, as ornamentals.  The French considered the tomatoes “peasant food” some of these attitudes probably carried over into the United States, for the tomatoes wasn’t eaten here until about the middle of the nineteenth century.  Since then, moreover, the tomato has enjoyed a rapid climb to the top, and is now one of the most popular vegetable grown.

The large, red, succulent fruits that we enjoy today, however, have little in common with their ancestors, the “tomatls”, grown by the Incas and the Peruvians.

The early tomatoes were small and yellow; today’s sweet juicy tomatoes were developed by the Italians.  They found their way into America and became a staple in the American diet.  Since you probably have tomatoes in your backyard garden this spring, we’ll give you a few tips about the care they need to insure their best growth.

My information was provided by Extension Emeritus Specialist Jim Stephens of the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Plenty of sunshine is a must for healthy sweet tomatoes. A minimum of six hours a day is suggested, but sunshine all day is even better. 

Another rather general rule is to use mulch.  As you know, mulches help conserve soil moisture, inhibit the growth of weeds and keep fertilizer from leaching.

But, most important for tomatoes, mulches keep the fruits off the ground.  Good materials for mulches are straw, leaves, dried lawn clippings and plastic.

Mulching with black plastic has given many gardeners excellent results.  If you would like to try this method, prepare the soil for planting and make sure that it’s sufficiently moist.  Lay the plastic over the entire bed and anchor the edges with soil.  Then, cut holes in the plastic and set the plants into the bed.

Tomatoes need about 1 ˝ inches of water each week heavy soaking once or twice weekly are better than many light sprinklings.  If your soil is very sandy, you may need to water more frequently, especially the first week after planting.  Never let the soil completely dry out.

Many insects can bother tomatoes, causing leaf and fruit damage.  A general purpose insecticide will control most of their problems.  You county extension agent or garden center operator can recommend an appropriate insecticide.

The most serious disease of tomatoes is blights, leaf spot, wilts and viruses.  Leaf spots can usually be controlled with fungicide sprays.  Viruses and wilts, however, must be controlled by using resistant plant varieties to start with.

For more information on tomato production contact the Gulf County Extension Service @ 639-3200 or visit our website: