Tomato Gardening

Posted on January 10, 2008 in Other writing

A version of this essay appeared in Country Home magazine in August 2003. I have since grown many tomatoes, and sucessfully, but, at the time, I had given up hope. 
Charleston, South Carolina, Summer 2003: For the first time in many years, I didn’t plant tomatoes this spring. As a food writer and an avid gardener, I’m likely to be ridiculed by my friends and neighbors. For years I’ve browbeat them with my call for fresh and local ingredients, demanding only the finest seafood from nearby waters and just-picked fruits and vegetables. But as a tomato gardener, I’ve had it: for the past three summers, what the birds and squirrels didn’t get fell victim to blossom end-rot or wilt or hornworms. I live in the subtropical, coastal South. You’d think tomatoes would love it here. They grow well, but so do their nemeses. Like nematodes. There are three kinds of nematodes that affect tomato roots — root knot, sting, and stubby root. Do I really need to know this? I bought tomato seedlings that were nematode-resistant. They tasted like overripe plums. I bought some heirloom tomato seeds, guaranteed to produce real tomatoes. The photos on the website where I ordered the seeds showed fist-sized, deeply ribbed, multicolored tomatoes that were supposed to be acidic and meaty, with more tartness than sweetness. The plants did well but the tomatoes were innocuous patios. I sent photos to the organic seed saver from whom I had purchased his “family heirloom seeds.” He never responded.
My mother grew up in Tennessee, where her mother had a big kitchen garden. Mama was a tomboy, but bookish as well. When she left home, she left all gardening desires behind. We never grew tomatoes when I was growing up, but when I went off to college, I always filled my otherwise Spartan apartments with houseplants and my yards with flowers and vegetables. One year I rented a cabin in the country on the grounds of a large estate where my landlady’s green thumb was displayed at every turn. She boarded horses and added the manure-laden soil from around the stables to the three-foot-deep holes she would have me dig for her tomato plants. We buried yard-long tomato vines up to their necks in the holes, then built ten-foot-tall bamboo teepees over the tiny portion of the plants that remained above ground. Occasional watering was the only care the tomato plants received. By mid-summer the vines would cover the teepees and we would dine on perfectly ripe tomatoes that we picked daily for months. I thought I knew how to grow tomatoes.
Years later, when I moved to downtown Charleston, my only gardening space was a two-hundred square foot courtyard. Remembering our success in northeast Georgia, where I had gone to college, I dug huge holes in the minuscule yard, pulling out eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pottery shards, clay tobacco pipes, and beer bottles in my excavations. Old-timers told me that I couldn’t grow tomatoes downtown: it’s too humid, too shady, too polluted, and there are too many bugs, they told me. But as an advocate of home-grown, I was determined to grow tomatoes. They laughed as I did everything wrong: planted the tomatoes too soon, watered daily with an overhead sprinkler, used no pesticides, and overfed the plants. That summer, though, I had the last laugh, harvesting tomatoes daily from my three, ten-foot tall plants from mid-May to mid-November. I was Tomato King.
When I moved to the suburbs, I was sure that my yard would become Tomato Kingdom. My first year, ignoring the warnings of my octogenarian neighbor who had lived next door for sixty years, I planted the tomatoes in the ground. “There’s some disease in the soil,” she had told me. I ate crow, and tomatoes from her potted plants placed on a patio, for the rest of the summer. My plants barely produced leaves, much less fruit.
The next year I ordered the latest tomato planters, with water reservoirs in the bottom. They were scientifically designed, and guaranteed to produce twice the fruit in half the space. I ordered two dozen varieties of heirloom seeds, along with some old reliable hybrids that my neighbor recommended, and had a decent, varied crop of good-tasting tomatoes that summer, each fruit having cost me about four dollars apiece.
I had tomato-tasting dinners and had friends vote for their favorites. This being the South, most folks preferred the sweeter varieties such as Cherokee Purple. One variety called Lillian’s Yellow produced huge, grapelike clusters of racquetball-sized fruits, but they never matured. I’m a great lover of green tomatoes, though, so they still got eaten. Aunt Ruby’s German Green was my favorite, bar none. A spicy, solid green beefsteak tomato, it has just the right amount of fruitiness to offset its citrus like tang. I saved seeds by the score.
The new millennium did not seem to be my century of tomatoes, though. In 2001, I spent even more money on insecticidal soaps and organic fertilizers, liquid fish emulsion, sulfur for mites, and bird netting, all to no avail. I blamed a dear friend, a smoker, for killing the plants: tobacco mosaic virus can be transferred to plants just by touching them. I set out companion plants to attract beneficial insects. I hand-pollinated the flowers. Our measly tomatoes that summer cost us about ten dollars each.
Last year I moved to a new house and tried a fall crop in the special boxes. Here in the coastal plain, we normally dig up our tomatoes in July and put in another crop that produces fruit well into November, when the first frost comes. I was convinced that a greenway behind my former home was the conduit of the myriad diseases that had overtaken my tomatoes for the three previous summers. I don’t know whom I thought I was kidding. I got two Aunt Ruby’s and one Cherokee. The Lillians may as well have been laughing in my face.
And then, last fall, an amazing thing happened: one of the big grocery chains started carrying ugly, deeply ribbed, truly vine-ripened beefsteak tomatoes from south Florida. One of the brands is even called “Ugly Ripes.” I looked around the produce section to see if anyone saw me placing the supermarket tomatoes in my cart, and slyly snuck through the checkout line, avoiding eye contact with anyone who might recognize me. At home I sliced them and ate them on the day that I bought them. I have been back for more every week since then. When the dozens of gardening catalogs began arriving in the dead of winter, I looked out my windows to my newly landscaped yard and realized that the supermarket is just a mile or two away. Was my pride as a food writer who has always been fanatical about fresh and local ingredients going to make me humiliate myself in my own garden again? I’d rather be ribbed in the checkout line of the supermarket where I’ll buy those ripe uglies. The nematodes have me outnumbered.