My friends’ Facebook pages are filling up with proud photos of their tomato crops. They are wondering how they will make use of this embarrassment of riches, the crown jewels from their gardens. I’m sure that many of them are in full canning mode.
But, having just picked my third tomato of the season, and with my two tomato plants filled with smallish green orbs nowhere near ripening, I have a severe case of tomato envy. This was supposed to be the year when I moved from lightweight herb-grower to full-blown earth mother. In late May my son and I planted seedling tomato plants, four green bean plants that we had been given for free, a pepper plant, lettuce and herbs. I envisioned hot summer nights filled with fragrant tomato and basil salads; homegrown lettuce dressed with olive oil and lemon, and the satisfaction of being a true locavore.
Moreover, planting a garden was a way to honor my roots. It continued a tradition begun by my
grandfather, father and uncles. My grandfather’s garden, heavy on tomatoes, took up most of his small suburban backyard. His stone basement included a “cantina,” a cool closet where he and my grandmother stored canned tomatoes and sauces. Uncle John’s garden was truly self-sustaining, filled with tomatoes he grew from the seeds of last year’s tomatoes. His crop kept him and Aunt Betty supplied with tomato sauce through the long Pennsylvania winters.
My dad, once he retired, took up the family tradition and began cultivating part of our back yard. He studied different types of tomatoes and experimented to find out which ones grew sturdily and tasted the best. He could go on for hours discussing the growing habits, seed cavities and tastes of Big Boy, Big Girl, Better Boy, Early Girl and other Burpee varieties. Standing at his garden with his Miracle Gro feeder was a Zen-like experience for Dad. Often, when I came home from work, I could tell my dad had visited when I’d see a basket of beautiful tomatoes on the kitchen counter.
So this year’s planting effort was in part a way to honor my roots, as well as do our part for the planet by creating food that needed little more than foot power to bring it to our plates. We selected two kinds of tomato plants at the local garden center so we could compare how they matured and tasted, and nurtured them with fertile compost. We watched with pride as our lettuce seedlings sprouted (we sowed Burpee’s “salad bowl mix”), and John thinned out the seedlings so they would have a chance to grow. We watched our green bean plants climb up the trellis. We celebrated each new flower on the tomato plants like first-time parents viewing an ultrasound image.
Then one morning, to our horror, we went outside with the watering can and found only pathetic nubs where the lettuce seedlings used to be. Nearby, our firstborn tomato had vanished, carried off in the night by God knows what.
My friend Jane had warned me that this might happen. She had a woodchuck that had terrorized her garden for years, eluding even the craftiest of traps. It could be that the same varmint crossed the street to do takeout at our place.
Then came the July heat wave, when even daily watering was fruitless. Literally. The blossoms on our tomato plants withered away and never turned into orbs. Except for one cluster that included the tomato that the woodchuck or one of his fellow terrorists carried away.
And, to be honest, as the summer wore on and I got busy, I did not fuss over my garden like I did in the beginning. This is an ongoing problem; too many times I start something all gung-ho and then get forgetful, discouraged and/or bored. I’ll try to remind myself of this when the Burpee Seed catalog arrives next January, filled with impossibly perfect specimens that can never be replicated without a food stylist.
So now while more diligent gardener friends are enjoying their bounty, I am picking one tomato at a time, and hoping all the green ones turn red before the frost. But each tomato has been worth the wait, sweet and earthy at the same time, and we are still closer to being locavores than we once were.