Sunday, February 1, 2009

"What Would Life be Without Homegrown Tomatoes?"

The tall jungle-like bushes in the back are Brandywine tomatoes while the shorter greenery directly behind the wagon are grape tomatoes.

Have you ever heard John Denver's song Homegrown Tomatoes?
Ain't nothin' in the world that I like better
Than bacon & lettuce & homegrown tomatoes
Up in the mornin' out in the garden
Get you a ripe one don't get a hard one

Plant `em in the spring, eat `em in the summer
All winter with out `em's a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin' & diggin'
Everytime I go out & pick me a big one.
Isn't that the truth!? I dream of real tomatoes all winter. The plastic tomatoes we have to deal with during the winter are a disgrace to the word "tomato." I avoid them most of the time, but there comes a time about mid-January when I am lured to the display of red orbs in the produce aisle. Even though they seem rather firm, I find myself wanting to capture that summer taste and buy a couple. I am always disappointed. So, let's dream-plant some real tomatoes. Tomatoes that ripen in the sun. Tomatoes that you have to put in flat boxes because if they are piled, they bruise and crack. Tomatoes that smell and taste like tomatoes. Tomatoes that don't CRUNCH!

It seems with tomatoes, you either love 'em or you hate 'em. The majority of my family falls into the first category. The two who fall into the latter category enjoy all the great meals made with tomatoes, even if you won't catch them popping any cherry tomatoes in their mouths. Our oldest daughter, Alycia, is one who could live on tomatoes, I believe. Well, that and cucumbers. If they are ripe, she is out there snitching them. Not that I mind, of course, but it'd be nice if she'd bring a basket and pick a few to bring in the house while she's there!

I grow more tomatoes than I do peppers. We eat as many raw tomatoes as we can possibly stuff ourselves with during harvest and do our best to can or freeze the rest in quite a few different forms. The majority get canned as simply as possible because of time and the sheer quantity. Quite a few get made into salsa and either canned or frozen. I have a couple favorite salsa recipes and am always on the prowl for more. I would like to try ketchup sometime, IF it would taste like store ketchup because (whispering) we do love our Heinz here. I canned spaghetti sauce a few different times, but decided it was faster to just coldpack the tomatoes and fiddle with the sauce making later when there weren't bushels of fresh and quickly over-ripening tomatoes to deal with.

As for fresh tomatoes, most of them are eaten sliced. There are differing opinions on how to eat them--some like with pepper and/or salt, sprinkled with sugar, even spread with Miracle Whip, and quite often in their pure naked wonderfulness. There is nothing quite like picking a tomato and eating it right out there in the garden like it was an apple. Of course, MANY cherry and grape tomatoes are consumed up in the garden. One of our favorite dishes to make when we have plenty of tomatoes is gazpacho--a cold tomato and cucumber vegetable soup. Extremely delicious and refreshing!

Like my peppers, I work hard to extend the harvest season as much as possible. This means starting those little tomato seeds at the same time I do the peppers--around mid/late February, early March. They are not as dependent on warm soil to germinate as peppers; usually room temperature (65-70 degrees F) will result in excellent germination rates. I start them in mini soil blocks, potting on to 2 inch blocks quite soon after they have germinated and before the first true leaves. They are under growlights the entire time so that they do not get leggy. The growlights need to be lowered to just a few inches above the plants so that they don't have to stretch to get light. I keep an eye to make sure they don't touch the lights--even though fluorescent growlights are cool, they do produce enough heat to burn the leaves if they are too close. As the seedlings grow, I transfer them to larger pots--4 inch and then 6 inch--burying the stem below the leaves to encourage good root growth. Stems of many plants, and especially tomatoes, will sprout roots wherever they are in contact with soil. Burying the stem creates a larger rootball and makes for a sturdier plant stalk.

I follow the same timeframe for my tomatoes as I do with peppers as far as when to move to the cold frame, green house, and garden. The main difference is that while the peppers are usually content in 4 in pots until transplant time, I like to have the tomatoes in 6 in pots which results in a larger plant to set out. This means they take up a LOT of space, so they get priority in the greenhouse. In early May, I want to move these space hoarders out of the greenhouse to make way for other seedlings. I accomplish this by creating a mini greenhouse environment right in the garden, an idea I found in a great book called
The Small Commercial Garden by Dan Haakanson, a former commercial gardener from North Dakota.

The process of setting out tomatoes is multi-step. I start by tilling the bed and then mark out the rows. All of my tomatoes are set out in double rows. We run a strip of 3 foot wide plastic mulch the length of the row, and hold it in place by pressing the tomato cages into it, right against each other in double rows. We made our own tomato cages from concrete reinforcing wire mesh--some stand 2-3 foot high (for the determinate tomatoes), some stand 5 foot high (for the take-over-the-world indeterminates), and all are about 18 inches in diameter. This spring I will take pictures of these sturdy cages and post them. Having them against each other means they support each other as the tomatoes grow. Since they are so big in diameter, each tomato plant has plenty of space, but is nicely held upright. At this point I'm ready to start planting. One by one, I lift each cage, cut a hole in the plastic, dig a big hole (remember, I'm putting out 6 in pots and if need be, burying extra stem), put in a quart or so of water and 1/4 cup Fertrell Feed and Grow, and planting the plant. Then I set the cage back in place and move on down the row. The last couple years, I've put the watering and fertilizing jobs in the hands of my youngest children, who seem to enjoy getting wet and measuring! LOL! I usually leave a 2 foot walkway between the rows of cages and mulch this using paper covered with old hay. It's important to keep mud from splashing onto the plants since blight and mildew spores get splashed there right along with the mud. Plus the mulch keeps the water down in the ground where your plants need it rather than evaporating. It keeps your shoes (or barefeet!) a lot cleaner, too!

After the row of tomatoes is put out, we need to protect them from late freezes and give them that greenhouse temp they like so well, so we use a heavy plastic (like vapor barrier) and wrap it around the sides of the entire row, leaving the top open. Over the top we stretch and tie (with twine) Agribon garden fabric (row cover). Light and rain can get in, but while it's less than 60 degrees outside, the tomatoes are enjoying a taste of the tropics!

We leave the plastic and fabric in place until the plants start to touch them. If we have some unseasonably warm weather, we might have to remove the fabric to keep from baking the plants. By the time we remove the plastic, many of the tomatoes are flowering and they have quite a headstart on other local tomatoes.

The last 3 years I was able to harvest my first tomatoes by July 4! These were generally my New Girls, the earliest tomatoes I plant, but they were followed closely by the paste tomatoes and finally the big slicers.

Of all the varieties of tomatoes I plant, my favorite has got to be an heirloom favorite--Brandywine. The plants are massive with huge leaves that look more like potato plant leaves. The fruit are just as impressive--huge deep pink tender fruit. Be careful or your thumb will poke right through the ripe ones. I try to harvest them when they might still have a hint of green near the blossom end so they don't mush on the way to the house. And OH, do they taste heavenly. I daresay they have the perfect tomato taste. They are wonderful for BLT sandwiches--one slice is the size of the piece of bread! Absolutely delicious!!!

Of course, the tomato harvest ends quickly in this northern climate. An early freeze has been the demise of many a ripening tomato. I do my best to protect my precious tomatoes when a freeze is predicted. Tarps, sheets, and blankets are spread over the best rows with hope that it won't get THAT cold. Inevitably, the cold gets them. It's a disappointment, but usually also a relief. Finally we can let up on the canning mayhem. There's usually a couple boxes of ripe tomatoes and (if we got out there) quite a few boxes of green tomatoes that will slowly ripen, or rot, depending on their mood.

I've been saying for the last few years that I want to move my greenhouse up to the garden and put it over a few plants to prolong the harvest a few more weeks. So far it hasn't happened, usually because we are just plain exhausted from the long summer days! So, maybe this year we'll get that done. And then maybe we'll have fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes into November!

Sadly, it's only the first of February. The seeds won't arrive for a few days yet. So until July remember:
Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes
What would life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love and homegrown tomatoes.