Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tomatoes, Queens of the Garden

Sure, we gardeners are capable of growing everything from azuki beans to zucchini, but let’s not kid ourselves: the real reason for anyone to even think of growing anything in the first place is to possess, sometime in late summer, those succulent, sweet-tart, juicy tomatoes, whose flavor can’t be bought anywhere else. For my neighbor and me, tomatoes hold the central ground in our gardens. We baby them, carefully tending and transplanting the seedlings. We cage them and stake them and fertilize them lovingly. For their sake, we pick off large caterpillars—hornworms and corn ear borers—with our bare hands, and then smash their guts out on the ground.

It’s not just the taste, either. The tomato is a singularly rewarding plant. If it’s happy and well watered, it keeps growing until it makes a jungle of the gardener’s neat rows. It becomes heavy with fruit that balloons out in a satisfying way until it reaches the desired proportions. Then we have the satisfaction of watching the fruit ripen and become just a bit redder every day until it becomes as pleasingly fat and uniformly bright as a clown’s nose.

In a fit of experimentation (and not wanting to be outdone by the Man with the Perfect Lawn), I planted five varieties of tomatoes this year: Green Zebra, Sweet Pea Currant, Roma VFN, Early Girl, and Top Sirloin. The latter three had all been relatively successful last year, and represented three basic types I thought my garden should always have: the Italian tomato, so piquant in salsas; the early; and the big, muscular, highly impressive beefsteak. I mixed together my Romas and a Green Zebra with some cilantro, garlic, and an Anaheim pepper for a salsa that had more than the usual zing and tartness, so different from the vinegary flavor of the stuff sold in jars at the supermarket.

I chose not to plant Brandywines, deeming them too troublesome. After a long spell of hot, dry weather, followed by torrential rains, last year’s Brandywine tomatoes had all split down the middle, attracting those ugly, small insects that burrow into exposed vegetable flesh. The few Brandywines that ripened properly were mealy in texture. It might have been the weather that did it, but I felt that even an heirloom variety should prove hardier than that.

Instead, I tried the Green Zebras, just for fun. When ripe, they are yellow, with green striping and green flesh. Disappointingly, however, they tasted much like ordinary red tomatoes—perhaps just a little less sweet, but without enough difference to matter much. The plants also yielded little fruit, compared to the other varieties. I might plant them again, but like a blond news anchor who only knows enough to read the TelePrompter and crack silly jokes, they will be kept around primarily for their looks.

I grew the Sweet Pea Currant Tomatoes in planters, as they seemed too delicate for the main garden space. Their seeds were the size of grains of sand, so small that I wondered whether they could germinate successfully. But germinate they did, and the small, fine-leaved plants prospered after I put them in the big flowerpots. They soon started producing feathery yellow flowers that seemed too tiny to attract pollinators. Somehow, those flowers gave rise to hundreds of pearl-shaped tomatoes. When ripe, the tomatoes were thick-skinned but sweet—and something of a chore to pick, because there were so many of them. A hundred of them could fit into the palm of my hand.

But all these tomatoes, though lovely to behold, are also a cause of great anxiety as fall approaches. (Yes, it may seem like the seasons have shifted already, but technically, we have three more days of summer to enjoy, if you include today.) I am keeping careful track of nighttime low temperatures. The Man with the Perfect Lawn says that tomatoes lose their flavor when the temperature dips below 50 degrees. I haven’t found information to corroborate this, but I have read that it’s important to save them from frost. Also, according to this account by Carl Wilson of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, if a tomato is entirely green, it may not ripen at all. With that in mind, I have decided to leave my tomatoes on the vine as long as possible before the first frost is upon us.

We’ll see who is right. The gardener with the most tomatoes wins the race. Since my neighbor planted his several weeks earlier than I did mine, he has an advantage that is probably unbeatable. Still, I’ll do my best to catch up (pun intended!). I will give the tally when the last fruit rolls in.

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