The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
August 22, 2012
Of all the New World crops that were introduced to Europe by the Spanish and returned to North America by the English, the tomato was one of the last to be accepted into the American garden. Nonetheless, the often repeated legend that Americans shunned the tomato because they believed it to be poisonous, or the many accounts of one brave soul standing on the steps of some public edifice and eating the tomato to the astonishment of the gathered multitudes and not dying, thereby giving the assembled onlookers license to consume tomatoes themselves, are greatly exaggerated.
By the last quarter of the 18th century, the tomato had gained wide acceptance as a sauce in the newly formed United States of America, though it was seldom consumed as a fresh fruit. Once accepted into the garden, however, the difficulty of managing so unruly a plant has confounded gardeners for centuries. The English writer John Abercrombie observed in The Universal Gardener (1778), “Unless they have support they will trail upon the ground, and over spread the neighbouring plants . . . but being trained against some sunny fence like a wall-tree or to a treilage or stout stakes, they will shew themselves to proper advantage.”
The Philadelphia nurseryman, Bernard McMahon agreed, “When the plants are grown about six inches, they should have sticks placed to them to run upon . . . for they will always be more productive in this way, than when suffered to trail on the ground.
Gardeners have long attempted to persuade their tomatoes to stand up straight with stakes and cages, but we have found a method that allows them to exercise their natural tendency to sprawl while still maintaining them in a convenient fashion. When the plants are well grown, we build a table of woven sticks for them to run upon. The plants grow through the sticks and when they become heavy with fruit they fall back down and for the rest of the season we simply harvest tomatoes from the table.
For this and other innovative uses for sticks in the garden we invite you to inspect Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners, published by Rodale Press.