The tomato is the fruit of Solanum lycopersicum—a nightshade plant in the Solanaceae family, which includes eggplant, peppers and potatoes. The tomato is native to South and Central America, where ancient peoples domesticated the wild plants. While the date of its domestication is unknown, records show that it was being cultivated in Mexico as early as 500 BC. When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they took tomato seeds back to Europe, where varieties evolved and spread.
Tomatoes are a great crop for the beginning gardener. Plants can be started from seed indoors and transplanted outside after the danger of frost has passed (usually mid May), or simply planted in the ground at that time. Plants are categorized as either determinate, meaning that they will only grow to a certain height, or indeterminate, meaning they will grow as wide and high as possible. In greenhouses, growers have mastered pruning and fertilizing techniques that keep indeterminate varieties vining for several years, continuously producing fruit.
Tomatoes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors beyond read. Some tomatoes are green, yellow, purple, pink, orange, black, white and combinations of those colors. Tomatoes are categorized based on their uses—plum tomatoes like Roma have a lower water content and are best for making sauces while Beefsteak tomatoes are best sliced on sandwiches. Heirloom varieties are increasingly popular with the best selection found at farmers markets. Heirloom varieties are those that have been saved for generations by gardeners and farmers. They are full of flavor and should be used within 1-2 days of purchasing.
Tomato seeds are easy to save for planting the next season. Squeeze out seeds into a jar or glass half-full with water and cover with a cloth or screen to keep insects out. The seeds will ferment after 2-5 days, which erodes the protective layer that keeps seeds from germinating. Strain the seeds out and let them dry for next year.