By Peggy Carroll
This is a story about tomatoes.
It is about the people in our towns who have played a role in their history – and are now playing a role in their future.
It is a story about a well-known 19th century builder, teacher and farmer who is the first in New Jersey to record cultivating tomatoes, and it is about a 21st century agricultural scientist who is working to bring back the famous “Jersey” tomato.
And it is a story that is right for the season. For gardeners, whether in back yards or community plots, it is time to plant the tomatoes.
In George’s Garden
It was in the first weeks in May, very often about May 12, that George Macculloch set out what he called “tomatas” in his garden.
Macculloch is best remembered as the father of the Morris Canal, but he was also an experienced and avid gardener. He was, in fact, the first president of the Morris County Agricultural Society.
He raised crops, including more than two dozen varieties of pears, on his 26 acres of pasture, orchards and cultivated farmland in Morristown.
And from 1829 to 1858, he kept a detailed account of all his gardening successes and failures in a meticulously kept garden journal. It was there, on May 12, 1829, he entered the planting of tomatoes.
It was the first record of the tomato in New Jersey and thus George is credited with pioneering the cultivation of the tomato in the Garden State.
Now Macculloch Hall Historical Museum, the house George built, is telling the story of the gardens that George and his wife Louisa established to feed their family, for profit and, said Dr. Patricia Pongracz, the museum’s executive director, for “creative expression.”
A new exhibit, called Two Centuries of Cultivating Green Space: The History of Macculloch Hall’s Gardens, is on view now through Sept. 1, 2016.
The exhibit traces, through photographs, design plans and George’s rarely seen crop journal, the history of the gardens planted at the Hall – from the early 19th century kitchen garden and farm, to the later Victorian and early 20th century gardens of later generations of the Miller and Post families, to the mid-century design created by the Garden Club of Morristown at the request of W. Parsons Todd, the “Mr. Morristown” of his generation and founder of the museum.
It also has something for the children: A display focusing on the plants and animals seen in backyard gardens of northern New Jersey. Among the features are a tabletop flower garden and a puppet tree where children can explore pollination and learn how bees, butterflies, worms and birds help the garden grow.
Where did George’s tomatoes come from? No one knows. Historians say the plant originated in the Andes in South America, where they grow wild in what is now Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador.
They were first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 AD. The English word ‘tomato’ comes from the Aztec word, tomatl. They were brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors and came back to the New World with immigrants.
Nor does anyone know, Pongracz said, how the Macculloch Hall tomatoes looked or tasted. The evidence suggests that they were popular with the family. They are listed year after year in the garden journal, along with potatoes and strawberries. They were, apparently, perennial favorites.
The tradition that George started, Macculloch Hall is continuing. Last spring, it established a kitchen garden, planted with tomatoes and herbs, as an outdoor education center and a tribute to George.
Just this past week. Dr. Pongracz set out eight plants provided by the Garden Club. She will tend them to the end of summer.
“It is one of the unspecified duties of the director,” she said with a laugh.
At harvest, the produce will be given to the Community Soup Kitchen and depending on yield, to other programs that feed the hungry.
For Kids — and Climate Watchers
The gardens of the Hall also will be the center of another summer program – this one for the younger set. In July, with the support of the Astle-Alpaugh Family Foundation, the museum will offer Dig It! Plant It! Eat It! for children, from pre-schoolers up.
Through hands-on gardening, tours of the museum’s 18th century kitchen and an art-making experience with artist and storyteller Linda Howe, youngsters will learn about the growth of the gardens at the Hall and the way its residents prepared and stored fruits and vegetables to sustain the household throughout the year.
They’ll also learn about the cultivation and care of a kitchen garden, the impact of insects and birds on pollination and take part in the creative aspect of tending a green space.
And the garden projects will carry over to the fall.
The museum is now preparing a digital version of the garden journal which is expected to “go live” on its web site by October.
Pongracz said it will be of interest not only to gardeners, but to botanists, environmentalists and those interested in climate.
For Macculloch listed more than the planting and harvesting of his crops in his journal. “In the upper right hand corner,” Pongracz explained, “he noted the weather. It gives a window into the climate from 1829 to 1858.”
It also includes any diseases that afflicted his plants, giving a picture of the trials and challenges of farming in in this area during his era.
If no one knows what the first Macculloch tomatoes were like, many do remember when tomatoes were far different from the kind now sold in supermarkets. There are many gardeners and cooks who would like the old tomato back.
Peter Nitzsche understands. He is part of a Rutgers University research team that has been working for years to reinvent the Jersey tomato. And this spring, they introduced the result of their research: An improved version of the 1934 “Rutgers” variety.
This was the tomato that is defined as the real “Jersey tomato” and one that was the favorite with farmers and gardeners for decades– red, ripe and juicy, a tomato that came warm from the vine to the kitchen and was for its lovers the very taste of summer.
The new variety carries on its attributes, and is called Rutgers 250, in honor of the university’s 250th anniversary.
Nitzsche, who is head agricultural and resource management agent for the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension in Morris County and an associate Rutgers professor, joined with his colleagues Dr. Thomas Orton, a tomato breeder and a professor in the Rutgers Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, and Jack Rabin, associate director of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) Rutgers research arm, a decade ago to find a tomato that brings back the flavor – with improvements.
The project began in 2007 when the Experiment Station set out to revive and revise the Jersey tomato.
The search began, Orton has said, because people wanted something better than what they found in their local stores.
And there is good economic reason to come up with a better plant, Nitzsche said. The tomato is one of the state’s most important vegetable crops. In 2014, New Jersey produced 2,900 acres for fresh market and 1,220 acres for processing, 9 percent of the total vegetable acreage of the state with a value of $41 million.
The original Rutgers tomato was the result of a collaboration between Rutgers and the Campbell Soup Co. in Camden. It was then considered to be more resistant to cracking and it became an ingredient in Campbell’s soups. It also was used in foods produced by by Hunt’s and Heinz.
But its leadership was eventually undone by two problems. The variety was developed without a patent and over time, companies made changes as they wished.
Then the tomato industry changed, moving to mechanized harvesting. The older tomatoes were soft and split too easily. With machine picking, they could quickly become tomato juice. Nor did they stand up to long distance shipping.
The industry moved to replace them with new varieties that look good and hold up well, but, as Orton said, “beauty is skin deep.” They are missing that old-fashioned flavor. They are smaller and thick-skinned and flat tasting.
The search for a better plant had a breakthrough in 2009 when the Rutgers researchers found that Campbell Soup still had genetic material from the parent plants that were used to develop the original Rutgers variety.
But it still took years, Nitzsche said, of crossing varieties in test fields at the research farm in Bridgeston. Most of the plant and fruit selection was done at the Snyder Farm in Pottstown. He got a great deal of assistance, he said, from Rutgers Master Gardeners volunteers.
Last November, the Rutgers 250 emerged as a winner.
The new variety has a firmer skin and an acid and sugar balance reminiscent of the original Rutgers tomato.
“The Rutgers 250 has that traditional Jersey tomato flavor with a little bit of bite and complexity,” Nitzsche said. “We are hoping it mimics the same flavor people remember from the original Rutgers tomato, but from a new variety with a better plant and fruit quality.”
The new variety is proving very popular. The seeds, produced in limited quantities for their introduction, have sold out, Nitzsche said, but seedlings can be found from local growers.
Next year, he promised, there will be more. And the mystique of the Jersey tomato will keep growing.
“It’s hard to say what makes it so much better,” he said. “It’s partly subjective. This isn’t all pure science.”