By James Glaser
Tomatoes are every vegetable gardener’s prized produce. It doesn’t matter if you live in Madison, or the North Woods of Minnesota, those first red ripe tomatoes tell you that you know how to grow things. There is one thing though you will learn if you move from the South to the North or vice-versa. You find you no longer know how to grow that garden favorite you thought you were good at doing.
I had years of great tomato growing in the North Woods of Minnesota, but when I got down here none of my tomatoes tasted like they should. Here in Madison there is a longer growing season, different soil, it’s hotter, it’s dryer, and there are different garden pests. I was fortunate though, as I met Wally Davis and Betty O’toole and started asking questions and started composting to add to my soil. It took a few years, and many questions, but between the two of them, I learned or should say, I relearned how to grow tomatoes.
Months before you see that first smaller-than-a-pea, little green ball show up out of that yellow blossom, you are planting these little seeds in peat pots, and you have to keep a close watch over them making sure they have enough water and the right amount of warmth. If they dry out because you had to go away for the weekend, you have to start all over again.
Also, you have to try and remember which tomato you planted in which group of peat pots. There have to be hundreds of varieties, and every year you are adding more to your menagerie. Then you hear somebody in the hardware store talking about Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, and you figure out it is a potential two-pounder, and you just have to have it. Sure, you have a few standards like Early Girl or Brandywine. My favorite stand-by is a hybrid called Amelia that I plant every year just to make sure I get a good crop, but new flavors and new colors entice every tomato grower.
This year I am growing black ones, striped ones, yellow and orange and, of course, a bunch of red ones in different hues and sizes.
When your first tomato ripens, you savor the first bite, but then you realize that to be polite you have to share, and that first tomato is usually only a four or five “ouncer” and that is not that many bites. Then you have to start waiting all over again, and that second one might take a week or more to get to the picking stage.
So, about three and a half months into this, you start getting a few every other day, which in itself is very cool. Of course, any new varieties you have to try right away, and yes, you have to share them, too. Really, you have to get into about the fourth or maybe even the fifth month since planting those little seeds, before you can get more than you can eat.
At first you don’t even think of giving any away. The wife might say her sister would like some, and you are thinking that if the sister wanted some she should have started her seeds when you did, but you don’t say that. You just pick out a bunch of standard varieties because non-tomato growers really don’t have the palate to appreciate something as exotic as a Black Krim, which is purple, or a Great White, which is yellow.
Now of course you have to remember that you had better get your year’s-worth of tomato eating in while your plants are producing because for the rest of the year, you can’t even think of eating one of those store-bought ones. I have no idea how they get those tomatoes looking so fine and tasting so bad. Their growing technique is just the opposite of tomato grower aficionados who really don’t care about what it looks like, but know that taste is everything.
Right now we are not in the overabundance stage. I can pick a whole slew of ripe ones, but there is still a lag time between that picking and the next batch. Here is what happens: I pick a few in the morning and two in the afternoon and add them to the ones I already had. Then Wanda makes a tomato pie, which is just great, but that takes most or all of the tomatoes.
The next day we tried a new Stripey, and we both agreed that it was excellent. It was an eight ounce beauty, about the perfect size for a tomato sandwich or a BLT, but we were out of bread so we just ate it naked – well, uh, mine with a little salt and pepper. I then went to the store and bought some whole-wheat buns that said “perfect for sliders” on the package. So I came home and had a couple of tomato sliders with a couple of small Celebrity, and now I only have two little Early Cascades left.
The saving thing for tomato growers is the cherry tomatoes. I have Matt’s Wild Cherry, Adoration, Yellow Pear, and some orange variety that is just great, but I don’t know the name. I think cherry tomatoes are best taken right off the vine and popped into your mouth, even if it is hot out. Maybe they are better hot and in the sun. They can hold you over while you are waiting for bigger ones to ripen.
So, in about a month, I hope to have every tomato grower’s dream and be so inundated with ripe tomatoes coming every day that I have to make sauce, freeze some and even give some away. That would be nice.