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YOU get a tomato . . . YOU get a tomato. . .and YOU get a tomato!

by Marie Stofesky

Marie and her Grandpap with bushels of tomatoes

The sun is shining brightly with not one cloud in the sky casting endless heat and making it unbearable to set foot outside of your nicely air-conditioned house.   My Grandpap thrives in these conditions. He cannot wait for what most people think as excruciating heat. While we are complaining and wishing for the cool breezes of fall, he is scheming new ways to make his tomato plants growth bigger and better than last year . 

Some may call my Grandpap eccentric and others might just shake their head at him, but I call him a genius. Each year my Grandpap returns to the drawing board to create a new and improved contraption for his tomato plants . What is this contraption? Imagine a perfectly crafted shed-like structure with an expertly slanted roof. This structure is not built with bricks or wood, but with plastic tarping. This alienish greenhouse that my Grandpap builds every year appears to the average eye so simple that you may overlook its importance for growing tomatoes. My Grandpap’s silly-looking contraption encapsulates all the current knowledge about optimizing tomato growth. 

Every summer, the Santa Claus of tomatoes visits my aunts, cousins, and my family. We wake up every week to a bag of tomatoes on the front porch, and we know that Pappy’s greenhouse is hard at work fostering the perfect environment for tomatoes to grow.

I have witnessed each spring the formation of this beastly structure. But, actually never understood what it was for. I first thought it protected the tomatoes’ branches from breaking in the wind. Only recently, during my studies at the University of Pittsburgh, did I learn the greenhouse wasn’t for protection. Instead, it traps the chemical ethylene that is produced by the tomatoes, which in turn increases how fast the tomatoes ripen. Ethylene is a plant’s version of perfume, which can be spread to other plants through the air. Usually most fruits and vegetables emit small amounts of this perfume-like substance; however, fruits such as bananas, avocados, apples, and tomatoes produce more ethylene than normal that allows them to continue their ripening process after being harvested (these are called climacteric plants). 

Now why is a greenhouse such a conducive environment for tomato ripening? Tomatoes have the super power of increasing their production of ethylene in the presence of other climacteric plants. It is like a game of telephone where a chain of people whisper a phrase to the next person in the chain. Each person whispers what they hear from the first person, and at the end of the game, the last person in the chain announces the phrase. It always ends up that the phrase at the end of the telephone chain is completely different than the original phrase at the beginning of the chain. Instead of a long chain of phrase whispering, tomatoes sense the ethylene of the other tomatoes and increase their rate of ethylene production.  The end product of this telephone game of ethylene is that a tomato created by a single tomato plant is drastically different from the fruit produced by many ethylene-emitting tomatoes in a greenhouse. My Grandpap’s greenhouse contraption traps the heat from the sun and all the excess ethylene produced by the other tomatoes. This ethylene stimulates the tomato plants to accelerate their ripening process even more. 

You can’t imagine the vast number of tomatoes that my Grandpap’s small homemade greenhouse produces. It produces way too many for two grandparents. Every summer, the Santa Claus of tomatoes visits my aunts, cousins, and my family. We wake up every week to a bag of tomatoes on the front porch, and we know that Pappy’s greenhouse is hard at work fostering the perfect environment for tomatoes to grow. For the whole summer and into fall, my whole family enjoys meals upon meals centering around tomatoes.

While I enjoy spaghetti and meatballs as much as the next person, it is always a relief to know that come December we will not be eating spaghetti for weeks straight. Are you eager to be a part of my Grandpap’s gardening secret? No matter where you live, you do not need a greenhouse or excess outdoor space to capitalize on the tomato’s superpower. You can simply use a brown paper bag and a couple of unripe tomatoes, bananas, apples, or avocados. The key is to place one ripe fruit inside a closed paper bag with the other unripe fruit, which will stimulate the production of ethylene. And in no time, you will have perfectly ripe tomatoes at your fingertips.

Marie is a sophomore Biology Major on a Pre-Veterinary track at the University of Pittsburgh.  As part of her Plant Biology Course she wrote this blog reflecting on her experiences with plants and decided to share it with Plant Love Stories.  Besides writing blogs, you can catch Marie exploring the outdoors and hiking throughout Pittsburgh’s many local trails.


Photo Credits: (Top) Marie Stofesky; (Bottom) Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash


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