Why this tomato season sucked

Sep 14, 2016 at 12:37 pm
Why this tomato season sucked

A confluence of badness hit Louisville this summer with the common theme of more. More heroin, made all the worse by a resurgence of HIV and hotshots laden with deadly fentanyl.More homicides, driven by heroin and rising gang warfare, now acknowledged publicly by city officials. More unusually wet and hot weather, perhaps caused by climate change (we are not scientists, but…). More heartache, with the death of Muhammad Ali, our hometown hero nonparallel, and friends from heroin. And more hate, stock in trade of a new, activist governor whose Twitter and selfie addictions are eclipsed only by his arrogance and tone-deaf politics. And then we had a sucky backyard-growing summer, producing a harvest of angry tomatoes.

By all accounts, the overheated summer of 2016 has been a disaster for politics, the environment, the University of Louisville and growing tomatoes. The natural result has been boiling anger, widespread devastation, a sad parade of righteous lawyers, funding threats — and blossom-end rot.

Today — while dipping into the other plagues as a matter of course — we shall primarily deal with tomatoes, and what went wrong, although politics, academics and blossom-end rot are no longer mutually exclusive terms.

Truth be told, it is tomatoes that define we gardeners. The beans may snap, the peas may posture and the cucumbers may pickle, but the high water bill is all about the tomato patch — the best Better Boy, Early Girl and Mortgage Lifter tomatoes in the neighborhood.

It hasn’t always been that way. A few thousand years ago hardly anybody cared about tomatoes. According to the mostly-accurate and generally-humorless Wikipedia, the plant is native to Western South America and Central America. It first showed up looking more like a yellow marble. In polite society it was also considered a member of the deadly nightshade family, which pretty much slowed its early popularity in posh European restaurants.

The later rush to tomato paste was apparently stirred by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés after his armies captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521 — which took a few years, a whole lot of wanton slaughter and a smallpox epidemic.

After the Spanish takeover of the country, the winners distributed tomato plants all through the Caribbean and even the Philippines, where it spread to Asia. The seeds also made their way to Europe, including Britain and Italy. They eventually showed up on North American shores in the early 1700s, or roughly 250 years before Papa John’s pizza.

Even though Thomas Jefferson ate tomatoes in Paris and sent the seeds back home to the folks at Monticello, the common 1770s worry was the plant was poisonous. Tomatoes did thrive in the colonies as ornamentals, and surely some were eaten by curious gardeners about an hour before lunch.

The totally forgotten Godfather of the American Tomato is one Alexander W. Livingston, a Livingston, Ohio, native and nursery owner who was born in 1821. He began seeking a tomato that was consistently smooth-skinned, uniform in size and had better flavor — all those attributes pretty much missing in the farmers’ markets of his day.

Livingston began with plant hybridization, then gave up on that and began selecting seed from plants that offered the results he was looking for. Bingo! In 1870, at the ripe age of 49 and as the nation struggled to recover from the Civil War, if not the political idiots then in charge, he introduced the “Paragon” tomato.

With blood-red tasty fruit, it was the first vigorous producer in a world soon gone mad over tomatoes.  Although totally eclipsed by the numerous tomato cultivars since, “Paragon” is still available from many heirloom seed companies. Try it next year. Get connected to your tomato roots.

That plant has an ovary!

Tomatoes, capitalism and self-serving politics raised their amalgamated heads in 1893 when the U.S. Supreme Court — then consisting of nine living, breathing members, if you can imagine that — was asked to decide if a tomato is a fruit or vegetable.

This heavyweight legal ruling came about because Southern tomato gardeners had built a rich business sending their produce north, a process somewhat disturbed by the previously-mentioned Civil War.

Needing their tomatoes, the Yankee markets began importing tomatoes and other vegetables from Bermuda and the Bahamas. After the war, the Southern farmers wanted their market back, and pushed the government in 1883 to place a 10 percent tariff on imported vegetables.

All scientific and botanical evidence, of course, proved that tomatoes were a “fruit” with the ovary and seeds of a flowering plant. Indeed, was not the tomato also known as the “love apple?”

The scientific evidence that a tomato was a fruit was solid and irrefutable — as much as can now be said for the glacier-melting-evidence of global warming. Yet Emile Lacombe, a judge for the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, did not pick the lowest hanging fruit. On May 14, 1889 he ruled for the Southern farmers, generally saying, yes, of course, tomatoes were fruit botanically, but it was OK to call them vegetables because that was their common meanings.

His ruling was kicked upstairs to the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1892-93 session, which refused to overturn Lacombe’s decision, thus legally rendering tomatoes as vegetables, not fruit.

Louis Brandeis had nothing to do with it.

In announcing the unanimous ruling, Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray added the court had been down this row before when in an earlier case it had decided beans were vegetables, not seeds.

Red Tomatoes get gas

A fruit by any other name proved to be a very valuable commodity. There are now more than 3,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in the world, and at least 10,000 known varieties. Actually, the U.S. Department of Agriculture claims there are more than 25,000 varieties, but it all depends on who’s counting how.

The more interesting of the names would include Albertovske Zlute, Grandfather Ashlock, Homer Fikes Yellow Oxheart, Tumbling Tom Yellow and Tumbling Tom Red — the latter two, cherry tomato cousins, best used on urban balconies or in small spaces.

According to a website called “Tomato Dirt” — which only confirms the bragging-rights of, ah, vegetable growers — about 93 percent of American gardeners grow tomatoes. Florida — which actually has a very poor climate for growing tomatoes —  grows about 40 percent of our store-bought tomatoes, or roughly equal to the percent of Louisvillians who go to Destin every winter. The Florida-growing trick is to pick them green and tough enough and get them up here red enough to sell fast enough at Kroger.

A recent Ira Flatow story on NPR explained that trick is accomplished by picking sand-grown tomatoes that are as hard and green as avocados. Then you lock them up in warehouses and spray them with ethylene gas until they turn as red as a Santa Claus suit.

Then you non-organic-gardeners get to eat them.

California grows most of our processed tomatoes. Please hold your applause here, but one Gordie C. Hanna of the University of California-Davis actually won an award for propagating the first “square tomato” for commercial growers.  It was designed to be mechanically picked, if not stored in a shoebox.

It was not named after Cesar Chavez.

What was lost in that square tomato process, of course, were those same attributes that Alexander Livingston was seeking; color, shape and taste. Which is why 93 percent of us grow tomatoes. Which brings us to the prime reason for this garden treatise: What happened to our unsquared tomatoes in this simmering summer of 2016?

All ’maters matter

The answer, in one word, is: weather.

There is some truth to that old adage about waiting until after the Derby to plant, even as global warming may be shoving that date back to Easter.

Tomatoes are basically prima donnas, if not wimps. They don’t like night temperatures below 55 degrees. Tomatoes have long genetic memories; it didn’t get that cold very often in the time and places where the Aztecs were in charge.

Night temperatures over 76 degrees will damage young fruit, and cause loss of flowers. You do remember that long string of nights over 80 degrees around here. Tomatoes also need even watering, even as this year produced regular downpours worthy of Noah. With that comes brown patches on the stems and leaves, which are caused by fungi-producing late blight.

Tomatoes are also a little into the Robert Frost philosophy of garden happiness: “Good staking makes good neighbors.”

The ugly face of blossom-end rot is caused by uneven watering, a lack of calcium in the soil, tossing out lies on Facebook or watching too much politics on television. Fresh mulch will help. Here’s the deal; there’s always next Spring. Even the most pessimistic of the Global Warmers believe it will be at least 50 years before the Atlantic Ocean gets to Shively.

So next year, try some different cultivars. You may feel as if you are selling out planting the more popular and established hybrids — and that’s because you are — but they are the products of years of testing and research.

If it’s the heirlooms you still want, some of the best are Black Cherry, Amana Orange, Dixie Golden Giant and plain ol’ Delicious.

Don’t plant until after Derby; Grandma forgot more about gardening then you ever learned. Use mulch, it keeps the moisture even and reduces weeding. Water evenly — watering oddly just causes problems. Prune off a few useless stems near the bottom. It frees up air circulation and at least makes it look like you know what you are doing. •