Monday, June 28, 2010

The trauma of the homegrown tomato.

If you could capture the taste of a summer day, it still couldn’t compare to a fresh picked from your own vine tomato. There is nothing that even comes close to the intoxication of the taste of your own tomato, it’s flesh still warm from the sun, picked at the peak of captures the warmth of a day. For me it is the true definition of summer.

This is why every year I plant my own tomato plants. And every year it’s a disaster. Last year, it was deer and rot. The rain drained all the soul out of my poor little plants and then the deer chewed what was left of them down every night until I had weird little bonsaied plants that looked like spreading junipers. I think we claimed 17 or 18 fruits from the whole patch.

The previous year I tried them in pots but choose the wrong varieties and every time there was a strong wind they’d all topple over and snap their stalks. Or lose all their tiny little green pearls. I think I had eleven tomatoes total that year.

The year before that I forgot to stake them, ending up with tomato plants that acted like watermelon - all the fruits trying desperately to ripen while laying in the dirt shaded by their own leaves and chewed on by all manner of insect and slug life forms.

In short tomato growing has been an exercise in failure for me for many years.

As a child I had a vegetable garden, but I wasn’t a big weeder, still not that great actually, so nothing appeared in that first August’s exploration for the red wolf peaches my father had told me “we” were growing.

So now that the last frost has past, like every year, I’m facing tomato season with a touch of trepidation.
I only really have room for six plants, but I’m not good at self-editing, which is how I ended up jamming in fifteen last summer. But this year, as always, I’ve vowed to have more self-control. Ha!
Not to mention that this winter, I spent almost every snowy day drooling over the pages of Amy Goldman’s veggie porn book The Heirloom Tomato. Lusting for her recipes has created deep tomato cravings, so when it’s finally time to decide which ones are going in the ground, I’m like a starved woman in a pastry shop. I just can’t control myself.

I only buy organic plants and I only buy them from reputable places. After last’s year’s tomato blight fiasco I would be very surprised at anyone who decided it was a good idea to buy tomato that have been stuffed with the chemicals needed to keep them going at a big box store. I buy organic, and I buy the best I can find, which, because we live in the Hamptons, means I have a plethora of choices.
Should it be Mortgage Lifter or Green Zebra or Bradywine? And what about Black Krim and Purple Heart and Yellow Crazy? Who can resist a tomato named Jellybean and I know I need Sweet Million, and what are those little golden ones called? I want them too. There’s even a fuzzy skinned one I’m dying to try. And when I try and choose between them all, they look so innocent and tiny that I forget how enormous each plant is going to be. They all fit so nicely in the box I’m carrying around as I shop. Even when I fill half the box up with basil to interplant among the tomatoes I defy any tomato lover to only choose 6 plants!

So this year, like last year, I have too many plants. But this year I finally have a deer fence, so they won’t be mowed down to tiny little stumps just as they start to push flowers. And I planted them deep, burying their stalks right up to the bottom set of leaves to increase their rooting potential. I even staked them right after planting so that I’m not wrestling with tomato sprawl. I’ve given them love and food and the right amount of sun and everything their little tomato hearts could need.

And now I’m going to sit back and watch and wait and know that no matter what happens, I’ll always have Pike’s in Sagaponack, the Tomato Lady on Main Street and all my friends at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday to fall back on -- none of whom will judge me in July when I slid a few of their perfect love apples into my bag because I have failed once again to grow my own tomatoes.

Paige Patterson also has a thing for white peaches but is happy supporting the local farmers who grow them.

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