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Me and my decorative tomatoes

Let’s just get one thing straight here. I’ve got the prettiest tomato plants around.

Their vines are long and lovely, with dainty green tendrils wrapping themselves around stakes like nobody’s business. The stalks top out at a good 8 inches above my head. And the leaves – well, they are clearly outstanding as far as leaves go. Unfurled, symmetrical, bug-free. So, what’s the problem? Where’s the beef? (Beefsteak tomatoes, that is.)

I didn’t really know there was a problem until my husband pointed it out. Maybe he didn’t notice it either, until my father-in-law arrived for Sunday lunch bearing gifts.

“Nice,” I remarked, fingering the bag of firm, ripe Better Boys. They were perfect specimens of tomato-icity.

The next day my husband pointed out mine aren’t. He managed to do so in an understated way, employing the cut/compliment strategy husbands often spend years cultivating. But I knew something was coming when he was talking to Son No. 3 and referred to me as “your mother.” It’s never good when they do that.

“So did Poppa grow these tomatoes?” our son asked, piling a hunk of red juiciness onto a plate.

“Of course,” my husband answered him. “Your mother only grows decorative tomatoes.” 

Ah, decorative tomatoes. Cut or compliment?

Usually “decorative” is a pleasant adjective, but I got his drift. My vines aren’t bearing much fruit. They’re mainly consumers – of dirt, space, rain, and my infrequent hoeing efforts. But they look good.

In my quest to improve production, I did some research. There were a couple of things I needed to nail down. First, fruit or vegetable? 

Well, it turns out nobody really knows. It’s such a debate that tomato lovers once took the controversy all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1887, the United States held imported vegetables to a tariff rate of 10 percent. Fruit, in contrast, arrived on our shores tariff-free. So, the tomato’s identity crisis had financial implications, eventually leading to the Supreme Court decision Nix v. Hedden that declared the tomato (drumroll, please) . . . a vegetable. The honorable assembly came to this conclusion using the popular definition which classifies vegetables by use. Since tomatoes are generally served with dinner and not dessert, they were labeled as veggies. While on the subject, a certain Justice Gray also clarified the status of the cucumber, squash, pea, and bean.

Authorities in Europe, however, deduced differently. On that continent, the tomato is classified (correctly, botanically speaking) as a fruit. They’re pretty serious about it, too. They issued a directive in 2001 saying so.

Actually, though, diehard botanists take it even further. They place tomatoes in a fruit subset – berries.

So, it boils down to this. To determine your tomato stance, you either have to go botanical or gastronomical. Got it?

With that research completed, I moved on to the other issue affecting my raised beds. Something called suckers. Every year when I discuss my tomato woes with other backyard gardeners, I hear the same thing: “It’s all about pinching the suckers off.”

I don’t want to appear clueless, so I always nod my head and act like I keep my vines sucker-free. This season I got smart, though. I watched a YouTube video.

Yep, it took a guy with a foreign accent to finally demonstrate the fine art of sucker pinching (not to be confused with sucker punching) to this Mississippi girl, but I think I have it now. Maybe. But I just want to reiterate something before I close. Yeah, let’s just get one thing straight here.

I’ve got the prettiest tomato plants around.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.