Forget sugarplums – at this time of year it’s visions of big, juicy, vine-ripe tomatoes that dance in the gardener’s head. Tomatoes are the quintessential garden edible. The tomato is so culturally ubiquitous – so representative of summer itself – that people not in possession of gardening gloves, a shovel, or the slightest desire to grow anything at all still get that deluded, wistful garden look in their eye sometime in April and buy a half-gallon Better Boy at their local Home Depot.
Northwestern gardeners can ripen up some great little cherry and grape tomatoes – the kind that taste like tomato candy and never make it to the kitchen – but this just isn’t prime big ‘mater country. Most years the big full-sized beefsteak tomatoes just don’t yield tremendously well. Our nights are too cold, our soil never really warms up, the season is too short. We have every excuse in the book.And what is the tomato-growing experience for most of us in the Maritime Northwest? At the risk of cynicism, I don’t think it’s usually that great. The really good tomatoes – the big Brandywine taste-test winners that cause Eastern garden writers to wax rhapsodic for pages in describing the sweetness, the acid, the balance…well, those just don’t grow very well here.
And while tomatoes are scrappy plants, and very easy to grow, they are not necessarily easy to grow well. In my effort for The Tomato of The Seed Catalog, I have personally struggled with collapsed cages, wind-tattered cloches, late blight, powdery mildew, slugs (and slugs, and slugs, and slugs) and at least one case of blossom end rot.
The good news is, we don’t have much of a tomato hornworm problem in this area. See, things are looking up.
When I was a kid, I would go up to my Grandma and Grandpa’s place on Camano Island. They had a crappy, creaky little rambler filled with Hummel figurines on a waterfront, high-bluff double lot with a panoramic view of Puget Sound. Blessed with a temperate location to begin with, their home sat in the Olympic Rain Shadow and basked in south-west sun all day.So why do we gardeners keep questing after the perfect tomato? I think it’s a selective memory thing.
My Grandpa scoffed at crop rotation. He planted his tomatoes in the same spot every year: in front of a white painted, south-west facing cement wall beaten by sun for 12 or 14 hours a day at the hight of summer. The white reflected extra light to the tomatoes during the day, and the cement held in the day-time heat and radiated it back out to the plants at night. This is how my Grandpa managed to get gorgeous crops of big tomatoes nearly every year.
I remember picking a tomato at their place once, long ago. I can’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old. The tomato was the size of my head, and I held it with both hands. I sat cross-legged in the grass, facing the rest of the tomato plants and away from the house so Grandma wouldn’t catch me and my tomato-nicking ways. Juice dribbled down to my elbows as I ate that tomato. As a kid, I didn’t particularly care for tomatoes, but in my Grandpa’s garden, it was almost like I was eating a big, tangy peach.
Every year as I browse the catalogs and read the tantalizing descriptions of tomatoes, and every year in late February when I start my tomato seeds for the summer, the memory of my Grandpa’s tomatoes is somewhere in the back of my head.
I think these childhood memories are so singular and become such a part of us that they have the power to push out the more recent realities: the burden of bushels of green tomatoes we’ll never eat, the almost-perfectly-ripe Roma’s completely skeletonized by slugs, the squish and smell of rotten tomatoes under-boot as I tear out mold-strickened plants at the end of the season.
My brother-in-law calls tomatoes a Heartbreak Crop, and he’s right. Just when enough frustration has piled up that we are ready to swear off tomato growing entirely, a summer comes along that’s hot enough and long enough and the plants produce. The flavor is perfect; nothing compares. We fall in love all over again, only to be crushed the next summer when the bounty, inevitably, falls short. But success is always more sweet for being hard-won, and I think we Maritime Northwest gardeners appreciate our garden-ripe tomatoes all the more for the work it takes to get them.
Gardening is hope, winning out over experience. Never give up hope.
It’s time to start those tomato seeds. What tips, tricks and magic will you be employing to help ensure a bumper crop of tomatoes this year?
All images in this post are the work of photographer and LA Weekly author Felicia Friesema. They are used here with her kind permission.1