“Gardening does so much for your brain. You’re learning how the process works and how important it is to do everything right. So that you can eventually enjoy a tomato three months later. I’ve always been patient, but gardening really helps you with that.”
— Marc Gasol, NBA center Los Angeles Lakers
Last summer a neighbor friend planned a day trip to a garden center some distance away. She asked if there was anything she might pick up for me. Maybe a couple of tomato plants? I’ve never been successful with tomato plants. The white flies come and suck the life out of them right after the tomato worms eat most of the leaves. Another neighbor grows large juicy good tasting tomatoes in abundance. His tomatoes are delicious and he shares readily. Last summer we feasted on tomato pie weekly. Even so, I elected to try again maybe with just two tomato plants. That afternoon my new tomato plants were delivered. She said, “They don’t look very healthy but they were the last ones they had.”
All summer long the two tomato plants looked spindly and produced no tomatoes. As temperatures turned cool, I moved the sad looking plants into the greenhouse. By late winter, when the ice storm arrived, about half of my plants were lost including one of the tomato plants but not the other. In early spring I moved the tomato plant out to the perennial garden. Today the determined tomato plant has eleven tomatoes and more blooms. Some plants, like people, are just survivors.
Prior to the early 1800’s most people did not eat the fruit of the tomato plant. Even the physicians of the day believed the skin of the tomato would adhere to the body’s internal organs and cause appendicitis and possibly stomach cancer. They also believed the ripe juicy fruit to be poisonous. Tomato plants are in a group of plants called “nightshades.” Some of the plants within that group are poisonous. At the time there were several different names for what we know as the tomato such as wolf peach, Jerusalem apple and love apple. There is a legend concerning Robert G. Johnson who lived in Salem, New Jersey prompting the tomato’s turnaround. Johnson, also known as Colonel Johnson, was a gentleman farmer, a judge, a horticulturalist, a soldier, and a statesman.
The legend says Colonel Johnson brought some tomato plants from abroad and was convinced they were not poisonous at all. It was September 26, 1820 where on the courthouse steps Johnson gathered a crowd and explained the history of the tomato and then proceeded to consume a basketful of ripe tomatoes. As the crowd of about 2000 waited to observe adverse results Colonel Johnson continued to eat all the tomatoes without any harm at all. The crowd cheered, the firemen’s band played and at least one woman screamed and fainted. There are many written accounts, reenactments, radio broadcasts, and celebrations of the Johnson event in Salem, New Jersey and beyond.
Records indicate after Colonel Johnson’s performance many area farmers started planting tomatoes as a money crop and shipped them to large markets in New York and Philadelphia. Since my spindly tomato plant has been so successful, I purchased two more tomato plants. At this point, with all the sun and rain, it looks like it may be a good year for tomatoes.
Columns by Shannon Bardwell of Columbus appear in The Dispatch weekly. Email reaches her at [email protected]