Grow your own tomato garden this year

By Diane Wright Hirsch, RD, MPH - Extension Educator/Food Safety
Featured - posted Mon., May. 20, 2013
Contributed
- Contributed Photo

What tastes better than a warm, sun-ripened tomato plucked off the vine and popped into your mouth? Not much, I think!  While it is bit late to start tomato plants from seeds, the selection is still good at local garden centers, with many offering both heirlooms and hybrids.

Tomatoes do well in containers too, so even if you just have a sunny porch or balcony, there is no excuse not to give at least one plant a try.
Tomatoes are not native to the U.S.  They actually originated in South America.  In fact, a cherry form of the tomato grows wild in the coastal mountain regions of Peru, Ecuador and northern Chile. Seeds were brought back to Spain by the early explorers and then were carried throughout Europe.  Colonists brought them back to this hemisphere.  Over the years, the tomato has grown in variety and popularity.

Most tomatoes in the supermarket or tomato plants sold by garden centers are hybrid varieties. Modern agriculture has created the need to grow vegetables and fruits that are uniform in size, shape, texture and appearance.  Most consumers want to see a red, round, unblemished and uniform tomato in the produce aisle. These tomatoes are bred for ease of production (tolerance of drought, frost, pests) and their ability to stand up to the bumps and rough handling or transportation.

However, in recent years, we are seeing home gardeners increasingly interested in trying heirloom varieties of tomatoes. Heirloom varieties of plants are open-pollinated cultivars – this means that they are pollinated by bees, wind, birds and other forces of nature.

If you grow tomatoes in your garden, these practices will help you to reduce the chance that you could get sick from those lovely tomatoes. These tips are also good for anyone who grows any type of produce in a backyard garden:

Locate tomato plots away from manure piles, well caps, garbage cans, septic systems and areas where wildlife, farm animals, or the family pets roam.

Use compost safely. Compost is the natural breakdown product of leaves, stems, manures and other organic materials-and also a source of pathogens.  To be safe for gardening, your compost must reach a temperature of at least 130 degrees F.

Water from lakes, ponds, streams, and even water from rain barrels can be polluted by bird or animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry.  It would be best to avoid using these water sources on your food crops, unless you have no other choice.

If a potable water well is your water source, you need to take a little more care to be sure that it is providing you with safe, clean water—be sure it is maintained and test the water annually.

During the gardening season, keep cats, dogs and other pets out of the garden.

Do what you can to discourage wild life from the garden (use effective fencing and keep bird houses and bird baths away from the garden).

Use clean, food-grade containers and clean hands when harvesting.

Brush, shake or rub off any excess garden soil or debris before bringing the tomatoes into the kitchen.

Once in the kitchen, store tomatoes at room temperature.  When you are ready to eat them or use them in cooking, be sure to wash them thoroughly under running water that is about the same temperature as the tomato.  Once cut, be sure to eat them all up (that would be MY preference) or refrigerate them at 40 degrees F or less.

For more information, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271 for more information or a copy of, “Garden To Table: Five Steps To Food Safe Fruit and Vegetable Home Gardening.”


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