We are midway into the New Orleans’ Spring Gardening season, and if any of you are growing vegetables, It’s a more than fair bet that you are trying to grow nightshades. Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplants. It’s what we do, it’s an impulsion that cannot be helped for the seasoned grower nor the gardening initiate. We like to grow these things because we like to eat these things. They are a cornerstone of just about every sort of notable cooking style throughout the world. The thing is, they’re not particularly easy to grow.
Rather than give you ultimate insight into how to best grow this family of food, I’m just going to give you one tip today. Grow small. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing in pots or raised beds or top of the line aquaponic indoor pink light systems. Growing small will take you further. Especially here in the Deep South where deep heat and deep moisture encourage rampant insect growth and plant disease in the summer months.
Small means cherry tomatoes, or pear tomatoes, or if you simply must have something more substantial, something no larger than Roma. I’m not telling you what to do, I’m just telling you what to do if you want a substantial yield. I’m just telling you what to do if you want to feel good about yourself and your garden this summer. I’m just telling you what to do if want to eat tomatoes this summer, and not just that one time on that one sandwich that you get to eat one time with one friend before all is lost in TomatoLand©.
Here’s why: Smaller tomatoes grow faster. Smaller tomatoes mature faster. Smaller tomatoes put out exponentially more fruit, not just in number, but in weight as well. In my opinion, they tend to taste better too.
I am no botanist, but I have a theory on why little tomatoes do so much better. Basically, they are derived from tiny fruits. That’s the theory. Our ancestors found these tiny little fruits, like smaller than marbles tiny, along mountainsides in South America, and slowly cultivated them over many generations into the tomatoes the likes of which we know today. So that’s how that works.
As I mentioned earlier, smaller tomatoes also ripen faster, so they are left on the vine and open to all manner of hungry insect and insipid fungus for less time.
I shouldn’t have divided this blog into categories based on specific vegetables, because I pretty much covered everything under ‘Tomatoes’.
Bell peppers take an extremely long time to mature. The good news is, we like to eat them before they mature! A green bell pepper is an immature bell pepper. The bad news is, green bell peppers are significantly less beneficial for you than mature bell peppers, regardless of their final color. Green peppers are like celery, tasty and crunchy but nutritiously fairly useless. Red peppers, orange peppers, purple peppers, and so on, are nutrient dense and delicious too. Either way, your peppers will be disappointingly small and the yield will be a bit terrible too if you go the way of Bell.
If you want sweet peppers, try something a little smaller, like banana peppers. If you want hot peppers, you are way better off. Hot peppers grow like hangovers in the New Orleans heat. They are unstoppable and multitudinous. You will inevitably succeed in getting them. Grow hot peppers. Put them in your bloody marys. Fight fire with fire. It is our way.
Eggplants are actually a lot easier to grow in our climate than their cousins. You will have better luck with smaller eggplant varieties, but growing the big boys isn’t too hard. The only real concern here is critters. Larger fruits do take longer to mature, and thus have more time on the vine to be sucked dry and inoculated with disease by beetles and the like. They are also huge and can be very taxing on the branches they grow from, so serious trellising might come into play, but if you’re willing to put a little legwork into infrastructure, go ahead and go big with these guys. I would recommend Thai and South Asian varieties over more common American or European varieties regardless of size, simply because our climate has more in common with those regions than it does with, say, New England.
All this said, if you’re not into small things though, please grow your monster vegetables and prove me wrong. The most important part of food gardening is to grow food that you will eat, so do that!
The term Creole tomato is essentially used to market tomatoes to those who seek that real truly good time old feeling local tomato with the juice of the sun inside. While the bulk of folks at market selling you Creole Tomatoes are selling you the real (as it gets) deal I’m sure, there’s nothing stopping a grocery store, or their distributor, or anyone else from calling whatever they want to call a Creole Tomato a Creole Tomato. So seek your tomatoes henceforth with this knowledge in tow, and I’m sorry if I’ve ruined your day. Or your Creole Tomato Fest. Which is this weekend, June 13th and 14th at the French Market.
Tell everybody what you’ve learned and ruin all the fun, ok?
This is an image of a Celebrity
tomato, above up top is an image
of a Creole Tomato. I mean...
New Orleans loves its Creole Tomatoes. They are so popular as to be named the official State Vegetable Plant of Louisiana (not to be mistaken with the official State Vegetable, the Sweet Potato). They are preferred over heirloom tomatoes in the grocery stores and Farmer’s Markets around town. We hold a Creole Tomato Festival every Summer. We love them. Garden centers seek them. Gardeners covet them. Chefs revel in their juices.
The thing is, there’s no such thing as a Creole Tomato. Much less a Creole Tomato Plant. Leave it to the State of Louisiana to allow an invisible plant to represent its agriculturally symbolic arm before the nation. Creole Tomato plants did once exist, they were developed by LSU breeders back in 1960something, and they were a perfectly decent plant, but most of the professors hanging out in LSU’s Agricultural or Agronomical department these days will tell you that the Creole variety has long since disappeared into the aether, and the odds that any seed distributor has been accumulating seeds from this variety over the years are pretty much zero.
If you are buying a Creole Tomato Plant from me or somebody like me, you are being lied to. To be fair, many garden centers, garden center employees, and garden center owners likely have no idea this is the case. Even their nursery grower may be ignorant to this truth, though in their case ignorance is compliance and cannot be entirely forgiven. Creole Tomato Plants are not real. I’m sorry if you have approached me at market and asked if I had Creole tomato plants and I simply said no. I didn’t want to crush belief systems of any sort within the bubbly and ever pleasant confines of the Farmer’s Market. The internet allows room for another sort of honesty. So there it is. Creole Tomato Plants. Not real. Don’t believe the hype.
Creole Tomatoes on the other hand are kind of a thing. A rose by any other name kind of a thing. When you buy a Creole Tomato at any market, what you are buying is a tomato that was grown in Louisiana soil, has travelled a short distance to get to you, and has purportedly unique and delicious flavor characteristics as a result of years of silt runoff from the Mississippi River mixed in the soil and myriad other environmental factors. Heat and wet air and such. That Creole Tomato may have been grown off of any number of varieties of Tomato Plants, none of which were Creole Tomato Plants, because again, Creole Tomato Plants do not exist. I believe, based on some reading here and there and through personal observation, that the bulk of Creole tomatoes are actually Celebrity Tomatoes (though again, fair enough, call them Creole tomatoes if you want, because the soil and whatever).
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.