By Les Harrison, UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director and Gohar Umar, FAMU Horticulture Extension Agent
Two locally popular vegetables are currently being cultivated in the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Master Gardener demonstration garden in Crawfordville for the purpose of comparing the performance of different cultivars.
Tomatoes and peppers have a long history in Wakulla County home gardens and of being cultivated in the New World prior to Spanish exploration. Both belong to the Solanaceae botanical family, but each represents a different genus.
The peppers grown in most local gardens originated in Mexico and have been grown for over 5,000 years. These members of the Capsicum genus are not related to the spice black pepper which is produced from peppercorns origination from India.
Historically, tomatoes began in Central American around 2500 years ago. Tomatoes belong to the nightshade genus, Solanum, which includes many toxic members, most notably belladonna.
Belladonna was widely known in Europe to be poisonous. It was used to efficiently dispatch enemies, whether political or religious, in those periods of constantly shifting political alliances from Imperial Roman to the inquisitions.
The scientific name for tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum, further reflects the problem of public misunderstanding of this useful crop. Lycopersicum translates from German to “wolf peach”, a large economy-size nightshade fruit.
Despite the initial food safety issue with tomatoes, they and peppers spread around the globe with Spain’s colonial efforts. Cuisines east and west now incorporate tomatoes and peppers.
Over the years plant breeders on every continent have produced tomatoes and peppers which met the taste and needs of diverse populations and specific growing environments. Heirlooms varieties of both vegetables are now generating great interest from gardeners, but with varying results.
With this increased interest in locally produced food and heirloom cultivars, the UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office is currently growing a selection of both vegetables in the demonstration garden to determine if successful production is possible locally.
UF/IFAS Wakulla County Master Gardener Bill Osborne is managing the pepper demonstration plots and the pepper plants. He is a graduate of the 2013 Master Gardener class.
Two bell type peppers, California Wonder and Orange, are being cultivated. For the patient gardener mature green bell peppers become red and its flavor becomes sweeter and milder as it ages.
Several spicy peppers are in the garden, too. Cayenne, Jalapeno, and Haitian are smaller than the bell types, but make up for it in the heat they produced.
UF/IFAS Wakulla County Master Gardener Dan Dobbins is managing the tomato demonstration plots and the tomato plants. He is a graduate of the 2014 Master Gardener class.
The University of Florida recently developed Tasti-Lee hybrid is one of the tomato cultivars growing. This high yield tomato has proven popular in past trials.
Mortgage lifter, a 90 year old heirloom is currently performing well and has many blooms. Everglades and Tropic are warm season tomatoes which are reported to produce into the summer.
The tomatoes and peppers are being grown in raised beds with mushroom compost as the primary growing media. The pH of this agricultural byproduct is slightly acid which is important, especially for the tomatoes.
Visitors are welcome to view the UF/IFAS Wakulla County demonstration garden from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.