Start your spring garden with tomatoes!

By Carol Taylor, MCN, RDN, LD, Registered Dietitian and Journalist

Two of the best parts of spring come together this month: tomatoes and gardening. April 6 is National Fresh Tomato Day and April 14 is National Garden Day. It’s a perfect pairing as tomatoes are the most popular vegetable for gardeners in Texas, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

Tomatoes burst with vitamins and minerals. They are a good source of potassium, helpful in managing blood pressure; vitamin C, which supports the immune system; and vitamin A which is involved in eyesight, the immune system and cell growth.

Lycopene, an antioxidant, is found in red fruits and vegetables, with tomatoes having the highest amount. Lycopene helps protect cells from damage and may lower the risk for some forms of cancer such as prostate, ovarian, stomach and pancreatic cancers. Research has also linked diets high in lycopene to a decreased risk of developing age-related macular degeneration.

A thick, meaty slice of ripe tomato makes almost any sandwich better. While I love a fragrant, ripe tomato in a salad, tomatoes become more nutritious when cooked because the heat releases more lycopene. Whether in salads, sandwiches, pasta sauces or salsa, tomatoes offer an abundance of nutrition and culinary options. Gardening has its health benefits as well.

Gardening has been associated with better health and nutrition, better school performance for kids, and greater community spirit. It also counts toward daily exercise goals. Those who garden say they tend to eat out less, especially fast food, and cook at home more. Going outside and grabbing a couple handfuls of lettuce leaves makes my salads more enjoyable.

Some people reach for tomato plants for their first foray into edible gardening. The appearance of tomato plants in big box stores and gardening centers heralds the arrival of spring planting for me.
Tomatoes can be grown in the ground or in containers. Either way, because they grow so tall and unwieldy, surrounding plants with cages or staking them is recommended. I prefer to buy plants that are already in pots with cages attached, requiring just feeding and watering to produce bright red orbs. (Plants in containers need water more frequently, but don’t overwater, wait until the soil feels dry.) Plus, if a late cold spell rolls through the area, I can pick them up and carry them inside to protect them from frost. It also allows me to move the tomato plants around to make sure they get the six hours of sunlight they need each day.

If you’ve ever thought about digging into gardening, now’s the time and tomatoes are a good place to start.

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