Tomato Capital of the World: What makes Pittston tomatoes special?
According to the Library of Congress, Pittston was dubbed the “Tomato Capital of the World” in the 1930s because it fulfilled the high demand for tomatoes by metropolitan New York. Readers of the Pittston Progress likely agree, but how did that originate? What makes Greater Pittston the quintessential area for growing robust, delicious tomatoes that are in such high demand?
Today, local experts and gardeners weigh in on this topic as the area is abuzz with excitement for the upcoming 2022 Pittston Tomato Festival.
“Pittston is absolutely the ‘Tomato Capital of the World,’” exclaimed Julio Caprari, Pittston native and gardening expert. “The Wyoming Valley is very fertile, that’s why it was originally settled. It is river fed, and the anthracite in the soil raises the pH, making for a very flavorful tomato.”
“In the 1830s, the North Branch Canal allowed Pittston tomatoes to be carried to New York City, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. By the 1850s, Pittston tomatoes grew to be in even greater demand and were delivered to a larger markets with the expansion of the canal,” explained Caprari.
One area gardener known for her beautiful garden and delicious tomatoes is Dorothy Rowlands, Duryea.
Rowlands has a picturesque yard, neatly trimmed with a white fence, housing a butterfly ladened bush, bee-friendly greenery, gorgeous flowers, and an inviting trellis to welcome family and friends.
When asked how long Rowlands has been gardening she said “For a very long time. So long now that I am slowing down since my children are grown and out of the house. There’s only so much I can give away and I don’t like to waste, but I still enjoy it. I’m not ready to give it up.”
These days, Rowlands plants just enough for her and her husband to eat, and enough to share with close family, friends, and neighbors. They enjoy a nice, homegrown tomato sandwich on Italian bread on a hot summer day, and she cans so they can enjoy the fruits of their labor throughout the year with soups, piggies and sauces.
Knowledgeable and well versed in gardening, with practical tips and generous confidence in others’ abilities to grow tomatoes, Rowlands said “Anyone with a pot, some dirt, and tomato seeds can grow tomatoes. Start with a 5-gallon bucket, drill holes in the bottom, fill it with dirt, and plant some seeds. It comes down to sunlight and water. You find the right balance of that, and you’ve got delicious tomatoes.”
Rowlands has a beautiful box garden filled with thriving tomatoes. While she has traditionally grown tomatoes in the ground, since downsizing, she is enjoying box gardening. Her tomatoes are easily accessed, thriving, and look like the cover of a gardening magazine.
“Wood chips around the bottom of the tomato plant help keep the plant cool,” Rowlands recommended.
She then explained that using companion planting can reduce pests and produce healthy tomatoes. “Plant two vegetables very close together — say onions and tomatoes. The onions confuse pests who find them less than appealing.” Rowlands said this helps her keep pests away without the use of potentially hazardous pesticides.
Rowland demonstrated the importance of snapping off the bottom leaves of the tomato plant, or the “suckers,” so that energy will be directed to the tomato itself, rather than the non-essential leaves sucking up energy, moisture, and minerals. She suggested pruning often, but at least once a week. “This also gives the tomatoes more room to grow, so you’ll end up with a bigger tomato.”
Another tip was planting beans below the tomatoes to grow up the vine, protecting the tomato plant, and encouraging healthy growth.
“Bugs will generally eat leaves, but not tomatoes. Woodchucks will grab a tomato, take a bite, toss it, and move on to the next. If this happens, you likely have to trap and safely relocate them if you want to keep your garden,” says Rowland.
“There are hundreds of tomato varieties,” Rowland said, mentioning a few: San Marzano are oblong with few seeds, Big Boys are smooth, bright red, and have a popular flavor. Heirlooms have a better taste than other hybrid varieties, and their seeds can be used to grow more Heirlooms year after year.
“Ugly Ripe is a meaty tomato, and Sweet. You can grow 100 Sweets on one stem. They are great in salad,” Rowland said. “Find your favorite, and grow that.”
Please see TOMATO, page P8
“Anything you need to know, you can learn on Google and YouTube. They can answer all of your gardening questions.”
You have grown your tomatoes, so now what?
Long time friend to Pittston and beloved area caterer, Dante LaFratte, has spent a great deal of his life in kitchens cooking full-bodied, healthy, delicious meals for family, friends, and loyal customers. Now as the caterer for the Greater Pittston Meals on Wheels, LaFratte doesn’t make anything that he would not serve to his own mother.
“I put tomatoes in a pot and boil them for two minutes. Then, I shock them in a bowl of ice water. The skins slid right off. This produces a nice, silky sauce,” stated LaFratte.
LaFratte prefers the deep red of a San Marzano tomato and says when cooking with tomatoes, it’s important to remember “low and slow.” “A good sauce should simmer for 3 to 4 hours,” he said.
If you feel inspired to start a garden, or perhaps try your hand at homemade tomato sauce, hopefully these tips will lead you to success. There are many locals who are more than happy to share their knowledge, expertise, and practical suggestions that will help lead you to a deliciously successful backyard garden.