By Lyla Amini, Farm Fellow
Tomatoes are a key and somewhat pivotal ingredient in my food life. I love them prepared every which way, and they are the base of most of my favorite meals. AMI has impressed upon us the reality and significance of eating based on the season; until very recently, fresh tomatoes were not a part of our diet.
We have spent the preceding weeks seeding, transplanting, trellising, and pruning our tomatoes in preparation for tomato season, and – Eureka! - it has finally arrived on the mountain!
Tomato pruning, i.e. “sucker” pruning, has become a garden task that I enjoy immensely and, not to toot my own horn, but one that I have developed a good eye for. Interacting with the entirety of the tomato growing process has also deepened my interest in the history and significance of tomatoes on a global horticultural scale beyond that which I experience and embody through my own personal consumption of tomatoes.
Tomatoes are part of the nightshade, or Solanaceae family. Recent genetic research into the path of wild tomato species into domesticated varieties has revealed that solanum lycopersicum, the species which all cultivated varieties of tomatoes are derived from, originated in Ecuador around 80,000 years ago. They spread north towards Mesoamerica via birds, animals, and human movement. They persisted as a weedy, semi-domesticated plant with a smaller fruit that were cultivated for thousands of years. Around 7,000 years ago in Mesoamerica, they were domesticated into what most are familiar with as the tomato. The Spanish encountered tomatoes through the conquest of the Aztec Empire, and they subsequently brought the plant to Europe, after which it was then brought to other parts of the European-colonized world during the 16th century. The movement of animals, humans, and food crops around the world and the sociopolitical narrative it captures fascinates me. Tomatoes are the second most important vegetable crop, a global market revenue valued at around 190.4 billion USD and consumed at a rate of 188 million tons annually.
Pruning, a practice to help with fruit yield that dates back centuries, is helpful when growing indeterminant, or vining, varieties of certain fruiting plants. Tomato pruning involves identifying a “sucker” - the branch that sprouts in the elbow spot of where the branch meets the stem - and removing it so as to encourage the plant to concentrate its energy into fruiting fewer but bigger tomatoes. The pictures below help illustrate this task.
I enjoy pruning tomatoes because while it is not an especially difficult task, it requires me to remain somewhat engaged as I gently yet meticulously examine each plant, searching for suckers as well as disease to prune off the plant. We’re at a point where we harvest tomatoes twice a week, and prune and trellis at least once a week to keep up with the growth. Although Teddy, our lead farmer, has warned us that we’ll be sick of tomatoes by the end of the summer, I’m looking forward to all the tomatoes we’ll get from the 200-some tomato plants we have.