ROOFTOP GARDENING IN THE BIG APPLE PART 1: THE TOMATO
(photo) Daby B. Carreras
ROOFTOP GARDENING IN THE BIG APPLE PART 1: THE TOMATO
In these days of worldwide pandemic, there is concern about food scarcity. Migrant workers have been especially hard hit with the disease, resulting in higher prices and scarcity for produce that must be picked by hand.
City dwellers are starting to look ahead and prepare themselves by growing some food. While there is not a lot of space for such an activity, rooftops provide an ideal location and such fruits and vegetables as peppers and tomatoes are ideal plants for rooftop gardening. Even if there is not scarcity of food in this city, there are other reasons to cultivate food crops, such as having a more tasty and nutritious meal, and the fun and learning that growing plants can provide. With limited activities to choose from these day, gardening is one that takes one’s mind off the bad news that so dominates the press.
As rooftops are an ideal place for urban gardening, the Daby Carreras campaign is looking to help city dwellers access roofs. Some building owners already allow rooftop access, but most do not, and there is a need to address this not just for gardening, but for other forms of activity as well. Rooftop access was an issue in Chicago politics, where a former mayor did well to increase this for that city’s residents. Daby Carreras and his crew will look to do the same for New Yorkers.
Below is a write up on the tomato, for the benefit of the urban gardener:
The tomato is the fruit, technically a berry, of the plant Solanum Lycopersicum. This is placed in the same genus as the eggplant and the potato, which are in the Solanaceae family, along with tomatillos, bell peppers, chile peppers, and cape gooseberries. Most plants in this family eminate from Central and South America, though the family is of worldwide distribution. It is sometimes called the ‘Nightshade Family’ and does include deadly nightshade.
The Aztecs and other indigenous groups in Mesoamerica domesticated tomatoes and used them in their cuisine as early as 500 BC in southern Mexico.
The first European to have had contact with this plant may have been Hernán Cortés, who in 1521 brought the small yellow variety to Europe from the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. Some say that he was not the first, but rather Christopher Columbus, who may have taken them back to Spain in 1493. Record of the tomato in European literature appears in a 1544 botanical by Pietro Andrea Mattioli of Italy who put forward ideas about how to prepare it as a dish. Mattioli, a decade later, called them “pomi d’oro”; thus their name in Italian, pomodoro, which has been carried into other languages such as Russian.
The British, Spanish and French took their word for this fruit from the original Nahuatl word ‘tomatl’, meaning ‘fat water’. The tomato is 95% water.
The Spanish took the tomato to their colonies in the Caribbean, and to the Philippines, from whence it spread to Asia. It took however to the Mediterranean climate the most; with its similarity to that of Mexico, this is no surprise. Mediterranean cuisine is now heavily dependent on this plant for many of its most classic recipes.
Middle Eastern cuisine has also used the tomato extensively, ever since John Barker, British consul in Aleppo from 1799 to 1825, introduced it to Syria.
A reference from British North America in 1710 by herbalist William Salmon places them in South Carolina, and by the mid-18th century, Carolina plantations included them as a staple crop. In some areas, consumption was slow to gain acceptance, as the leaves and immature fruit contain tomatine, which is toxic in large quantities. This substance is not present in the ripe fruit.
By the 19th century, tomatoes were eaten in most countries and today are cultivated worldwide. They are not hard to grow, and a single plant can yield as many as 75 large tomatoes. This is however a plant that requires both good sun and in the fruiting season, up to a gallon of water a day. Tomato seeds can be extracted from the fruit and planted fresh or dried and planted later. In good soil with adequate drainage, they are placed 1/4″-1/2″ deep. In about a week they sprout, with two simple, long leaves appearing that will be replaced in a week or more with the typical leaves. Good nutrition is important, with a 15-20-15 food mix used. Trace elements such as magnesium and sulphur can be supplied by applying on occasion a spoonful of Magnesium sulfate (epsom salts) to a gallon of water when irrigating. Phosphorous and nitrogen are readily available in coffee grounds which can be mixed in the soil and/or put on top. Many delis will allow you to take their used coffee grounds, so this can be a free source of nutrition to add to the soil.
Things to avoid include poor drainage, which could result in rotten roots. Always use pots with holes at the bottom and a layer of rocks at the base, with enough vermiculite or other soil loosener mixed in. Avoid heavy clay or any clumpy, water retaining media.
While these plants are sun loving, attention must be paid to the temperatures and on very hot days some shading devices must be used. On such days water needs to be given copiously and regularly, applied at intervals for best results.
A number of natural pests will come after the tomatoes, the first of which can be the flea beetles, common in New York and most US states. These make small pinholes on the leaves. The best way to get rid of them is to use neem oil, spraying the leaves on both sides. Neem oil used incorrectly can damage the plant, as when too heavy an application coats the plant and disrupts its breathing. Neem oil also takes care of a number of other problems such as fungus. An occasional spray with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide is also recommended.
Slugs like tomatoes. Salt will keep them at bay, as well as copper, both of which can be placed > around the perimeter of the pot or garden. > > In order for the fruit to appear, the pollen from the male parts of the flowers must mix with the pollen from the female parts. In Mexico this is made to happen by the local bees, whose wings vibrate very fast. Lacking the natural pollinators, bumblebees, wind and shaking devices accomplish this. Pollen that has been dried too much by heat can become sterile, and pollen which gets wet from watering the flowers (water at the base, not at the top) or from natural humidity can lose its virility and fail to produce fruit.
A well pollinated tomato plant can yield 30 or more pounds. This puts a lot of strain on the stem, and most growers use stakes or trellises to keep the plants upright.
As the tomato is a perennial, it can continue to grow and produce fruit for more than one year. However, this is rarely done. The ease with which it can be grown from seed makes it more practical to simply start fresh each year.
There are many varieties of tomatoes, both naturally occurring and hybrids. A range in size and shade exists, with differences in taste, acidity, shelf life and texture. In general, yellow tomatoes have less acidity and are sweeter, but a lot of the acid to sugar ratio has to do with the growing and picking. There is a trend for growers to pick tomatoes when unripe, saving money in cultivation and making for a longer shelf life. Another factor in taste is how the tomatoes are stored – most markets tend to transport and keep them as cold as possible, resulting in a poor taste. The true connoisseur knows to never place them in the refrigerator, and to pick them with part of the stem still on.
Nutritionally, tomatoes have only 1% protein, but are high in vitamin C. Their value, however, as an ingredient makes them well worth cultivating. They can be dried and stored for later use, either as sun dried or oven dried. In some ovens, the drying process can take place with but the heat of the pilot light, with the tomatoes cut in half, and sprinkled with oil, salt and herbs.
However they are prepared, they always taste better when grown organically and picked when fully ripe. For this reason alone it is well worth planting some seeds and doing the work.