When you really want to feel the farm-to-fresh-food connection, take a bite of a warm, homegrown tomato.
It smells and tastes of sun and soil, acid and sugar, and is one of the most delicious foods in the world. All by itself, it achieves greatness. Of course, a touch of salt and pepper, a chiffonade of basil, and a stream of rich olive oil will only increase the pleasure, as would thin slices of purple onion or a chunk of crusty bread and fine cheese. It's time to eat real food again. Let's plant some tomatoes.
Tomato plants are not pretty. We don't grow them for their ornamental value or their perfect flowers or their dainty texture. Nor should we choose varieties because the fruit travels well, has a long shelf life, or holds up when stacked ten deep in a giant red pyramid. We grow these awkward plants for the juiciness and flavor of their fruit, no matter how funky or misshapen some of that fruit might be.
Heirloom varieties are sure to please. They contain the purest flavor, the highest concentration of juice, and, what a surprise, are available in colors other than red. How about those yellow, green, orange, pink, or purple tomatoes? There are pear-shaped, cherry-shaped, ribbed, round, and oval varieties often developed for specific purposes, e.g., canning, stewing, slicing, or saucing.
Gardeners have good luck with both the large red 'Brandywine' or 'Yellow Brandywine'. A favorite at farmers' markets for its flavor, purple-to-red color, and medium size is 'Cherokee Purple'. A large orange tomato with sparkles of red inside the flesh is 'Striped German'. 'Green Zebra' is exactly what the words connote, and 'Black Prince' features flavorful flesh, great juice, and a mahogany exterior. To round out the palette, add 'Great White' and your tomato slices will rival a floral bouquet.
If you start your plants from seeds, you'll have a wider range of heirlooms to choose from, either online or from good catalogs. Sow the seeds indoors about two months before you put the small plants outside, usually at the end of May in our area. If you buy small transplants, you'll have to look a little harder to find a good selection of heirlooms. But start your search early — it's worth it. Tomatoes are very, very frost-sensitive, so keep an eye on the weather predictions and cover your plants if it looks like a late-spring frost is on its way. This is why savvy tomato growers often wait until Memorial Day before setting out their plants — sometimes a real challenge when April fools us with a few 70-degree days. Finally, make sure you purchase or plant tomatoes that are labeled as resistant to blight, fusarium wilt, and verticillium wilt.
Choose the sunniest spot in your garden, where the soil is rich and well drained. Your plants are either determinate (meaning they will grow to a certain height, often about 3 feet tall, and then produce their fruit), or indeterminate (they just keep on growing and producing fruit as they grow). Clearly, the latter will need staking, caging, or an artful arrangement of stringing to keep the plant and its booty from collapsing on the ground. Start early with the staking.
You also may wish to pinch out the sucker growth originating in the axils of the lateral branches. This relieves the plant of having to expend energy on branch growth and focuses its energy into fruit production. Keep your plants well watered and mulch the ground around the plants with a few inches of straw or lightweight material to conserve precious moisture. Tomato plants can react to wild swings of moisture by cracking, scarring, and other spoiling effects. They love even moisture — the opposite of woody plants and turf, which appreciate a bit of drought between deep infrequent soakings.
If the soil is rich with compost, leaf mold, or other organic material, synthetic fertilizers should be unnecessary. But this is a gardener's call. If you feel your tomatoes are lacking, side-dress the plants with a balanced fertilizer.
Professional growers recommend pinching the tops of the two leaders about one month before the fall frost. This causes the plant to stop growing and again, forces it to push the fruit. Chipmunks, squirrels, and deer will love your tomatoes too, especially if any fruit is brushing the ground, so watch your plants carefully and harvest on a regular basis.
There are tomato cultivars developed for small spaces, patios, and even containers or hanging baskets. The Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden displays many types for many situations. Bon appétit!
Karen Zaworski is a garden writer and photographer who lives and gardens in Oak Park, Illinois.