The tomato tree, also known as the tamarillo tree, originated in South America. Widely available in the United States, the woody, attractive trees feature egg-shaped fruits that look like tomatoes, but the fruits taste sharp and tangy. While the tomatoes may be eaten fresh, the high amount of pectin in the fruits makes them ideal for jams, jellies and preserves.
As a perennial, the tomato tree offers a long-term garden presence unlike regular tomatoes. This means you need to keep an eye on where you plant it in the garden since it needs space to grow for a number of years. Tomato trees need to grow for at least 18 months before the first fruit appears. Peak fruit production takes place in three to four years after planting.
Tomato trees may be grown from seeds in hardiness zones 9 to 11. Since the plant features shallow roots, it needs protection from heavy frost and strong winds. The seeds need to be planted in a sheltered area with full sun. The plants prefer slightly acidic, well-drained soil, so adding compost or other organic matter helps the plant grow and thrive.
During the first year, seedlings or small plants need protection from any kind of frost since these conditions can kill the plant. Covering the plants with plastic in mild freezes provides adequate protection. Better yet, a fabric covering or bed sheet allowing moisture to escape works best to protect the young plants. The covering needs to be removed after each frost as soon as the sun starts to warm up the area.
Fruit grows on new spring growth, so this plant requires pruning. Fortunately in areas where frost occurs, tomato trees get pruned naturally; just remove the old, dead wood after a frost. In regions where frost does not occur, the plant should be manually pruned.
Water and Fertilizer
Like other tomato plants, the tomato tree requires regular watering and fertilizer. More water may be required during hot spells or in drought conditions. If the fruits appear with hard lumps between the skin and seeds, this indicates more watering is needed. This may also indicate a mineral deficiency. To avoid this problem and to encourage high quality fruit production, a complete fertilizer needs to be applied to mature trees before spring pruning, then again one month later. Fertilizer should also be added as the fruit starts to develop.