Sunday, April 16, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/15/06)

Originating with the Incas, tomatoes have served a variety of purposes, one of which was as a poison. The same Incas who gave us tomatoes also used them to poison the soldiers of the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century. The tomatoes of that time were small, yellow, and far more acidic than our cultivars and heirlooms of today. The oxalic acid of the Incas’ tomatoes ate holes in the soldiers’ intestines, inducing slow, painful deaths. The Incas were neither the first nor the last to gain revenge by poisoning their enemy with gifts of food and drink.

With such a chancy history it is small wonder that tomatoes are hard to grow in Flagstaff and on the Colorado Plateau. Also, Flagstaff’s cold weather and short growing season make growing tomatoes even chancier.

High maintenance plants, many think that the tomatoes’ beauty and taste are worth the time, money, and anxiety they demand. Indeed, some gardeners think of their tomatoes as trophies to be trotted out and shown off to all their neighbors, frequently boasting about the time, money, and ordeals required to grow them. As with a lot of high maintenance trophies, tomatoes are fickle. Sometimes, they’re great and sometimes real pains in the ass, but when they’re great, they’re great.

The tomato is a fruit grown on a vine. The Supreme Court ruled it a vegetable, but only a lawyer or a judge would use the convoluted logic of lawyers to call a fruit a vegetable. As a fruit it is best plucked fresh off the vine by hand and eaten while still warm. Leaning forward and dripping on the ground is acceptable behavior.

No hardy mountaineers, tomato vines can’t even stand up by themselves and need a lot of propping up with cages, poles, or lattices to keep them from falling over.

The trick to growing tomatoes is the same trick used by many gardeners in Flagstaff, fooling Mother Nature by micro-managing the climate and refurbishing the soil. Flagstaff and the Colorado Plateau are not congenial to tomatoes who like it warm and humid, not cool and dry. Tomatoes have to be tricked into thinking they are in the Midwest or South during a long warm, muggy summer. Thus the choice for tomato lovers is either living in a warm, muggy climate and growing tomatoes easily or living in Flagstaff and growing tomatoes with difficulty. A real double-bind. As an old farmer once said, “Yep, the weather’s a little hard on us humans, but its sure great for the corn, hogs, and tomatoes.”

Tomatoes can be grown either in the ground or in containers. Both places work, but the choice among tomato aficionados, such as Dr. Jim Mast, is the container, preferably an ugly black plastic container. Black absorbs heat, fooling the tomato plant into thinking the soil is warm when it isn’t. For ground-growers, black, porous plastic sheets spread around the plants’ base perform the same trick.

The chilly air is the next challenge. Frost kills tomatoes. The one advantage to Flagstaff is that really hot, rainy summers are not congenial for tomatoes, either. The easiest and almost most expensive trick is the Wall-o-Water, a device sold by nurseries. It is literally a translucent plastic wall of water which surrounds the tomato plant, tricking the plant into thinking the air is warm when it isn’t. The manufacturers claim the Wall-o-Water works in temperatures down to 16 degrees F.

Less expensive and less effective arrangements are rocks, of which there plenty in Flagstaff, gallon glass wine jugs, or gallon plastic milk jugs. The rocks absorb heat during the day and keep the plants warmer at night. The gallon wine jugs filled with water do the same trick as the rocks. The gallon plastic milk jugs with their bottoms cut off and caps discarded can be placed over the tomato plant in an attempt to keep the plant cozy day and night. Also, plastic tarps or old bed sheets can be draped on poles or cages over the plants.

Of course, all of this trickery can be accomplished in a green house, surely the most expensive way to grow home-grown tomatoes, especially if the green house is heated with electricity or gas. If passive solar heating is used, then the only expense is the green house itself. A really cheap and effective green house is a lean-to affair set against the wall of a house, drawing radiant heat from the house, but such an arrangement may be too casual for gardeners with a sense of propriety.

Next tomato beds, fertilizer, bugs, and varieties.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

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