Fruit or vegetable? To tomato lovers, it doesn't matter

Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Gary Siebert stocked tomato plants including Jet Star, Big Boy and Better Boy varieties at Sunny Hill Gardens and Florist. (Fred Lynch)

To tomato lovers, it doesn't matter.

I have asked a lot of people if they are planting a vegetable garden this year. The response is usually, "I sure am."

"What are you planting?" I ask.

"I'm planting tomatoes."

It seems that many gardeners in Southeast Missouri have equated planting a vegetable garden with planting tomatoes. I've found that if nothing else is planted, most gardeners still plant a tomato or two.

Tomatoes seem to be the nectar of the garden. Gardeners talk about picking a ripe tomato off of the vine and popping it right into their mouths. They roll their eyes as they talk about the fresh taste.

Tomatoes have been controversial. The state of New York placed a tax on vegetables imported into the state in the late 1800s. One importer refused to pay the tax on tomatoes because he said tomatoes were fruits, not vegetables. (Biologically tomatoes are defined as fruits because they develop from the ovary of the flower). The U.S. Supreme Court got involved in the dispute and ruled against the importer by saying that tomatoes were vegetables. Money usually changes a lot of things.

I have one friend who hates to eat tomatoes, but he plants 13 plants every year because he likes to watch them grow. He enjoys watching his wife, family and neighbors eating them.

Americans are so enamored with tomatoes that they will spend a lot of money growing one little plant in their backyard. An acquaintance in the garden center business in another community puts on a tomato clinic every spring. During the clinic he discusses the "how to" of growing tomatoes. He told me that after the clinic, the average attendee spends anywhere from $40 to $60 for supplies to grow just one tomato plant.

When considering my friend's add-on sales per tomato plant, I can only dream of selling tomato plants all year long. I will say that I have had gardeners asking for tomato plants in January and February, and in September and October. Since I sell tomato plants March through August, I now have 10 months out of the year covered. Do you think I could figure out a way to sell them in November and December?

When I was growing up, there were only two ways to grow tomatoes. You planted them in your garden and either staked them or let them sprawl out on wheat straw. Today's gardeners have a lot more options. Tomatoes can be grown in your garden the traditional way, in earth boxes, in 5-gallon buckets, in bales of straw, and upside down from hanging baskets. If you know of any other ways to grow them, let me know.

Not only can you grow tomatoes in many different ways, but you can also grow a lot of different kinds. One mail-order catalog, "Totally Tomatoes," lists more than 100 varieties (I quit counting) of tomatoes. There is a tomato for every conceivable use and occasion.

If you want to get growing the most popular vegetable (fruit) in America, go to your local garden center and purchase some tomato plants and put them in the ground or your favorite container. Watch them grow and brag about them to your neighbors as you roll your eyes.

Send your gardening and landscape questions to Paul Schnare at P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63702-0699 or by e-mail to

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