This is a wonderful time of year! The days are becoming noticeably longer and with daylight savings soon upon us, I yearn for longer time in the garden, late afternoons stretching into the twilight. My new seeds have arrived in the mail and I am ready to come up with a seed-germinating plan. Many gardeners at the Main Street Community Gardens plant from seed, either saved seeds or organic seeds from a nursery. Still, some prefer to buy already established seedlings. That’s okay, but there is something wondrous and magical about starting plants from seed. It is truly amazing to plant a seed, the size of a grain of sand, into the rich brown soil, watch it sprout, grow and flourish, and know you have been part of its propagation. And this time of year, is all about tomatoes.

We’ve all heard the tales about tomatoes, “Columbus discovered them!” “Early settlers thought they were poisonous!” There is no definitive evidence of exactly how tomatoes arrived in Europe. It’s hypothesized that Spanish explorers brought them back to Spain, or Jesuit priests brought them to Italy. As with almost all plants, the tomato was wild. Horticultural scientists know the wild tomato came from Peru and were cultivated by the Aztecs. The Aztec empire covered what is now Mexico. When first cultivated, tomatoes were small, much like our cherry tomatoes. The Aztecs called them ‘tomati’ and the Spanish ‘tomate’. Eventually the Aztecs cultivated them into bigger fruit and this is the fruit that appeared in Europe in the 1500s.

At one point tomatoes were considered poisonous. It is said that it was the peasants and lower classes that gobbled them up from their humble wooden plates while the upper classes enjoyed them from elegant pewter plates. The combination of the pewter and acidic tomatoes caused poisonous lead to leach from the metal. There is the written account of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of New Jersey, a retired military man and ‘gentleman gardener’ who famously stood on the steps of the Salem County Courthouse in 1820 and, with a basket of his tomatoes in hand and townspeople looking on, bit into one and finally put the debate to rest. The tomato comes from the nightshade family of plants, or Solanaceae. Nightshade plants contain alkaloids that can be poisonous such as in the deadly nightshade or belladonna. Solanaceae also includes innocuous plants such as potato (tubers), eggplant (aubergine) and pepper (capsicum).

I like to grow heirloom varietals in my Main Street garden. Heirloom varietals are open-pollinated. Open-pollinated plants ‘breed true’ and will be almost exactly like the parent plant from year to year. Non-heirloom varietals are considered ‘hybrids’ and are hand pollinated from two genetically different plants and this must be done each season.

My tomato plans for this year include a mix of cherry, slicing and cooking varietals. I have Tomato Berkeley Tie Dye Green for slicing. When ripe it should weigh between 8 and 16 ounces. Both the skin and the flesh should be green with red and yellow stripes and have a flavor mix of acidic, sweet and spicy. These will be paired with fresh buffalo mozzarella, basil and good olive oil. I always plant San Marzano. They will be par-boiled and peeled in whatever number when they are ready to be picked. They are then put through a food mill and frozen until I have enough for tomato sauce. I like using the late, famous, Italian chef Marcella Hazan’s recipe – sauté 14 ounces of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes squeezed to a pulp by hand, 5 ounces of unsalted butter, and an onion, cut into chunks. The tomato should be cooked down for at least 45 minutes at medium to low heat and the onion removed before serving.

My other tomatoes will be cherry tomatoes, mainly for salads and nibbling from the vine while I am in the garden. I will plant Tomato Principe Borghese. They are ‘famous for sun drying from Italy’. Maybe I will try that this year. If not, they can be halved and cooked down into a sauce; their firm fleshy pulp is perfect for cooking. With these I would use olive oil and garlic, removing them from the pan just as they begin to burst. They are perfect on orecchiette pasta.

And finally, a cherry tomato to experiment with: Tomato Brad’s Atomic Grape. These are from Wild Boar Farms in Napa Valley. As the tomatoes begins to form they will be purple and lavender and will mature into red, green, brown stripes. When fully ripe, they will be completely green on the inside. They are said to be very sweet and productive. I cannot wait to add them to mixed greens salads!