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Tomatoes are probably the most popular “vegetable” grown in the home garden; however, this hasn’t always been true. While researchers have traced the tomato’s origin to the mountains of South America, the plant was introduced and grown in Europe more than 200 years before being grown in the United States. Thomas Jefferson was the first person on record in the United States to cultivate the tomato, or “love apple,” as it was then called. In fact, in America, tomatoes were generally thought to be poisonous well into the 1800s, and were grown only for their ornamental value.

Alexander Livingston of Reynoldsburg developed the first commercially successful tomato variety, Paragon, in 1870. Over his lifetime, he developed and introduced 31 tomato varieties. In 1898, he incorporated the Livingston Seed Company, which is still in operation in Columbus today. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1910 about “half of the major varieties were due to the abilities of the Livingstons to evaluate and perpetuate superior material in the tomato.”

Today, the tomato has earned a special place in the home vegetable garden — despite the fact that a tomato contains seeds, and, by definition, is a fruit. There are several reasons why tomatoes stand out. First, and foremost, is taste. Who doesn’t enjoy a scrumptious, juicy, freshly-picked, vine-ripened tomato in comparison to the less tasty, sometimes bland, greenhouse-grown varieties that many retailers offer year-round?

While tomatoes are a key ingredient in many recipes, such as lasagna, gazpacho, ratatouille and salsa, tomato aficionados also enjoy eating an unadorned ripe tomato straight from the vine. Not only are they delicious and rich in vitamins A and C, but they are low in calories. A medium-sized tomato has about 35 calories. They are a well-known source of carotenoids, including beta-carotene and lycopene, which are key sources of antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that can inhibit the oxidation of other substances and may protect against chronic disease. Tomatoes (fresh and processed) account for more than 80 percent of the lycopene in the typical diet.

There are more than 7,000 different tomato varieties available commercially, ranging from the newer hybrids to older, classic heirloom tomatoes. While many of these varieties are not readily available locally, it still can be a challenge to decide which variety, or varieties to grow. You can choose from giant beefsteak tomatoes, which are great, sliced on a sandwich or burger, or you can grow the versatile medium-sized fruits, or the smaller cherry-sized tomatoes, which go well in salads.

In addition, you can grow determinant tomatoes that ripen all at once and are an excellent choice for canning or for making homemade tomato or spaghetti sauce. Cooks typically use plum tomatoes to make red spaghetti sauce, since these tomatoes have a higher solid content.

Heirloom tomatoes have been gaining in popularity, primarily due to their distinct flavor. However, offsetting this attribute, some heirloom varieties are prone to cracking and disease, unlike many newer hybrids, which have been bred for disease resistance.

Tomatoes are a warm weather crop and should not be planted until after the last spring frost date (May 20 in Central Ohio). The plants should be watered regularly and grow best in full sun. Given the proper care, a tomato plant can produce 10 pounds or more of tomatoes — an excellent return on your investment.

This is a brief article, but the topic is more comprehensively covered in The Ohio State University Fact Sheet “Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden” HYG – 1624-10 that is available online at Ohioline.edu. It gives more details, including fertilizing, pruning and staking techniques to support the plants, and a list of suggested hybrid tomato cultivars and heirloom plants. Special problems that you might encounter with tomato plants are also addressed.

Even if the amount of space you can allocate for a garden is limited, you should be able to make room for tomatoes. They fit well in a container in a small patio garden. So, in case this article has whet your appetite for some fresh home-grown tomatoes, there is still time (if you hurry) to buy plants and then, later this summer, enjoy the fruits of your labor. Visit your local nursery, consult Ohioline.edu, or call the Delaware County Master Gardener Helpline (740-833-2030) weekdays for help in getting started.

Nancy F. Traub is an OSU Extension Delaware County Master Gardener Volunteer.

Scholarship opportunity

The OSU Extension Delaware County Master Gardener Association is offering a scholarship in the amount of $1,000 to a Delaware County Ohio resident currently pursuing a career in Horticulture, Agriculture, Landscape Architecture, Environmental Studies or Environmental Science. Scholarship information can be found at delaware.osu.edu/topics/master-gardener-volunteer-program/scholarship%202010.pdf/view. Scholarship submission deadline has been extended until June 30.

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