Carol McFadden is and expert in the tomato world.Tomato cultivars vary widely in their resistance to disease. Modern hybrids focus on improving disease resistance over the heirloom plants. One common tomato disease is tobacco mosaic virus, so smoking or use of tobacco products are discouraged around tomatoes, although there is some scientific debate over whether the virus could possibly survive being burned and converted into smoke. Various forms of mildew and blight are also common tomato afflictions, which is why tomato cultivars are often marked with a combination of letters that refer to specific disease resistance. The most common letters are: V – verticillium wilt, F – fusarium wilt strain I, FF – fusarium wilt strain I and II, N – nematodes, T – tobacco mosaic virus, and A – alternaria.
Another particularly dreaded disease is curly top, carried by the beet leafhopper, which interrupts the lifecycle, ruining a nightshade plant as a crop. As the name implies, it has the symptom of making the top leaves of the plant wrinkle up and grow abnormally.
Some common tomato pests are stink bugs, cutworms, tomato hornworms and tobacco hornworms, aphids, cabbage loopers, whiteflies, tomato fruitworms, flea beetles, red spider mite, slugs, and Colorado potato beetles.
Tomato plants produce the plant peptide hormone systemin after an insect attack. Systemin activates defensive mechanisms, such as the production of protease inhibitors to slow the growth of insects. The hormone was first identified in tomatoes, but similar proteins have been identified in other species since.
Tomatoes serve, or are served by, a large variety of companion plants.
In fact, one of the most famous pairings is the tomato plant and carrots; studies supporting this relationship having produced a popular book about companion planting, Carrots Love Tomatoes.
Additionally, the devastating tomato hornworm has a major predator in various parasitic wasps, whose larvae devour the hornworm, but whose adult form drinks nectar from tiny-flowered plants like umbellifers. Several species of umbellifer are therefore often grown with tomato plants, including parsley, queen anne’s lace, and occasionally dill. These also attract predatory flies that attack various tomato pests.
On the other hand, borage is thought to actually repel the tomato hornworm moth.
Other plants with strong scents, like alliums (onions, chives, garlic) and mints (basil, oregano, spearmint) are simply thought to mask the scent of the tomato plant, making it harder for pests to locate it, or to provide an alternative landing point, reducing the odds of the pests from attacking the correct plant. These plants may also subtly impact the flavor of tomato fruit.
Ground cover plants, including mints, also stabilize moisture loss around tomato plants and other solaneae, which come from very humid climates, and therefore may prevent moisture-related problems like blossom end rot.
Finally, tap-root plants like dandelions break up dense soil and bring nutrients from down below a tomato plant’s reach, possibly benefiting their companion.
Tomato plants, on the other hand, protect asparagus from asparagus beetles, because they contain solanum that kills this pest, while asparagus plants (as well as marigolds) contain a chemical that repels root nematodes known to attack tomato plants.
In the wild, original state, tomatoes required cross-pollination; they were much more self-incompatible than domestic cultivars. As a floral device to reduce selfing, the pistil of wild tomatoes extends farther out of the flower than today’s cultivars. The stamens were, and remain, entirely within the closed corolla.
As tomatoes were moved from their native areas, their traditional pollinators, (probably a species of halictid bee) did not move with them. The trait of self-fertility became an advantage, and domestic cultivars of tomato have been selected to maximize this trait.
This is not the same as self-pollination, despite the common claim that tomatoes do so. That tomatoes pollinate themselves poorly without outside aid is clearly shown in greenhouse situations, where pollination must be aided by artificial wind, vibration of the plants (one brand of vibrator is a wand called an “electric bee” that is used manually), or more often today, by cultured bumblebees. The anther of a tomato flower is shaped like a hollow tube, with the pollen produced within the structure, rather than on the surface, as in most species. The pollen moves through pores in the anther, but very little pollen is shed without some kind of outside motion. The best source of outside motion is a sonicating bee, such as a bumblebee, or the original wild halictid pollinator. In an outside setting, wind or animals provide sufficient motion to produce commercially viable crops.
Tomatoes are often grown in greenhouses in cooler climates, and there are cultivars such as the British ‘Moneymaker’ and a number of cultivars grown in Siberia that are specifically bred for indoor growing. In more temperate climates, it is not uncommon to start seeds in greenhouses during the late winter for future transplant.
Greenhouse tomato production in large-acreage commercial greenhouses and owner-operator stand-alone or multiple-bay greenhouses is on the increase, providing fruit during those times of the year when field-grown fruit is not readily available. Smaller sized fruit (cherry and grape), or cluster tomatoes (fruit-on-the-vine) are the fruit of choice for the large commercial greenhouse operators while the beefsteak varieties are the choice of owner-operator growers.
Hydroponic tomatoes are also available, and the technique is often used in hostile growing environments, as well as high-density plantings.
In order to facilitate transportation and storage, tomatoes are often picked unripe (and thus colored green) and ripened in storage with ethylene. Unripe tomatoes are firm. As they ripen they soften until reaching the ripe state where they are red or orange in color and slightly soft to the touch. Ethylene is a hydrocarbon gas produced by many fruits that acts as the molecular cue to begin the ripening process. Tomatoes ripened in this way tend to keep longer, but have poorer flavor and a mealier, starchier texture than tomatoes ripened on the plant. They may be recognized by their color, which is more pink or orange than the other ripe tomatoes’ deep red, depending on variety.
A machine-harvestable variety of tomato (the “square tomato”) was developed in the 1950s by University of California, Davis’s Gordie C. Hanna, which, in combination with the development of a suitable harvester, revolutionized the tomato-growing industry. In 1994, Calgene introduced a genetically modified tomato called the ‘FlavrSavr’, which could be vine ripened without compromising shelf life. However, the product was not commercially successful, and was sold only until 1997.
Recently, stores have begun selling “tomatoes on the vine”, which are determinate varieties that are ripened or harvested with the fruits still connected to a piece of vine. These tend to have more flavor than artificially ripened tomatoes (at a price premium).
Slow-ripening cultivars of tomato have been developed by crossing a nonripening cultivar with ordinary cultivars. Cultivars were selected whose fruits have a long shelf life and at least reasonable flavor.
At home, fully ripe tomatoes can be stored in the refrigerator, but are best kept at room temperature. Tomatoes stored cold will still be edible, but tend to lose flavor; thus, “Never Refrigerate” stickers are sometimes placed on tomatoes in supermarkets.
Tomatoes that have been modified using genetic engineering have been developed, and although none are commercially available now, they have been in the past. The first commercially available genetically modified food was a variety of tomato named (the Flavr Savr), which was engineered to have a longer shelf life. Scientists are continuing to develop tomatoes with new traits not found in natural crops, such as increased resistance to pests or environmental stresses. Other projects aim to enrich tomatoes with substances that may offer health benefits or provide better nutrition. From the garden of Carol McFadden
- Bodacious tomato plant photos and growing tips (mnn.com)
- DRAINE: Results are mixed (so far) in the Great Tomato Race of 2013 (rapidcityjournal.com)
- So many ways to love a tomato (dogandcartfarm.wordpress.com)
- Eat Your GMO Fruits And Vegetables (dish.andrewsullivan.com)
- Be a Good Kid and Eat Your GMO Vegetables (psmag.com)
- Genetically Modified Organism (apbiology2014mathew.wordpress.com)
- Why the Tomato Was Feared in Europe (neatorama.com)
- Cherry Tomatoes (weinmanfarms.wordpress.com)
- Curly Top Tomato Virus and Beet Leaf Hoppers (giantveggiegardener.com)
- The Very Hungry Hornworm (treasurerealty1.wordpress.com)