The ripe, round, red tomato sitting on your kitchen table is alive and busy. While you or I am asking, “How shall I eat it?” the tomato is huffing and puffing, sending signals throughout its meat and juices that cue color, texture, and flavor changes. The tomato, if it could talk, would tell us it doesn’t give a damn how we eat it. All it wants is to get its seeds out into soil and make more of itself. It’s dying, it would say, to do that.
Meanwhile, as you or I consider gustatory possibilities (sliced into thick slabs and topped with fresh basil?), outside in our garden, the tomato plant goes into red alert. On the scratchy vine, messages stream from the wound our picking left behind. One set of messages instructs the plant to make a scab so liquids can’t flow out and bacteria and viruses can’t get in. The other set of messages, more a memo, really, advises the plant, “There’s one less mouth to feed. Send his food and water to the other fruits.”
Plants aren’t stupid. But their activities, literally, are beneath our notice. The plant’s “busyness” goes on at cellular levels the naked eye does not see.
Animals seem smarter than plants. In fact, plants may be smarter than animals. An animal, when you give it trouble, can eat you up or run away. A plant’s rooted down, stuck in dirt. It has to stick around and take whatever gets dished out. So that plants, to survive, have developed complicated defense mechanisms. Some researchers now describe plants as “slow animals,” forced by immobility to develop in ways subtler than an animal’s.
With the thought of that huffing, puffing tomato fruit on my table, I went over in my mind’s eye the progress of a tomato plant from seed to ripe fruit. What did that plant do? It popped up out of the ground, put out leaves, grew taller, put out more leaves, then yellow blossoms and, finally, green tomatoes that ripened and turned red. That was all I knew.
I had in hand Pat Welsh’s big (9˝ x 12˝) two-pound paperbound Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening while by telephone she and I talked about tomatoes. Born into a gardening family in what she describes as “a great, beautiful garden in Yorkshire, England,” Welsh spent her teen years on a farm in Pennsylvania. In 1945, she came west with her family, eventually marrying and settling in San Diego. Welsh was San Diego Home & Garden’s first garden editor and later starred for five years as “Resident Gardener” on San Diego’s NBC affiliate.
Welsh plants Early Girl for an early crop, then for a later crop, Celebrity and Better Boy. “I always grow Better Boy,” she said. “That’s the one I like best. For a smaller cherry type, I grow Sweet 100. Close to the ocean [where Welsh lives] I just don’t think you can do better than Better Boy and Early Girl and Celebrity. But Better Boy grows just everywhere.
“The most important thing about tomatoes, no matter where you live in the county, is sun. I’ve had people call me and say, ‘My tomatoes have no blossom and no fruit.’ And I say, ‘Did you plant them in shade?’ and inevitably they answer, ‘Yes.’
“In the interior, grow a heat-resistant variety. Ace Hybrid or San Diego Hybrid, because these two are somewhat heat resistant. And if you live in the interior, do not prune leaves off your tomatoes. If you do, your fruit will get sunburned.
“People shouldn’t plant in the ground and a lot of people don’t realize that. They look at it in the nursery and think it looks so healthy, so sturdy, the stem is so thick, and so they buy it not realizing it doesn’t have any of the protection for growing in the soil. It’s not resistant to certain soil-borne diseases, because it was built to grow in a container with potting soil and potting soil has none of those ‘baddies.’ ”
I asked Welsh what was the best tomato she’d ever eaten, and she answered quickly. “The best I ever ate in my life was in England in my grandfather’s greenhouse and I don’t think I could ever eat such a tomato here.”
Did she recall what variety her grandfather’s tomato was?
“No. And I don’t think it made much difference what variety it was. It was that it was grown in a moist, warm greenhouse and tasted so good picked off the vine with this magnificent aroma. I always remember that tomato. But once in a while picking a tomato off the vine in my own garden, smelling that warm, bright, marvelous smell and eating it right then and there, I’ve tasted that same flavor and had that same feeling.”
Tim Hartz is a state agricultural extension specialist, with offices at the University of California at Davis. Hartz told me that California produces 90 percent of the nation’s tomatoes. U.C. Davis, he said, is the leader in research in basic physiology, biochemistry, and genetics of tomatoes. “If you include entomologists and pathologists and molecular geneticists,” Hartz said, “at least two dozen people on the Davis campus are working primarily on tomatoes.”
Critics of commercially grown tomatoes speak of U.C. Davis as the “Treblinka of the tomato.” U.C. Davis researchers developed the mechanical tomato picker in the early ’60s. Soon after, U.C. Davis breeders created tough-skinned square processing tomatoes, able to bear up under rough-handling mechanical harvest.
Some facts. Tomatoes are used in cuisines on four continents. After potatoes, tomatoes are America’s most important commercial fruit. We eat about 80 pounds of tomatoes per year per person, a figure that includes fruit used to make tomato paste and sauce, salsa, catsup, and juice. Tomatoes are the most widely used canned fruit in the U.S.
Tomato professionals (breeders, plant physiologists, and biochemists, growers, county extension agents) speak of the tomato as three different crops: processing, fresh market, and home garden.