Memories of my early childhood include many scenes from my family’s garden. Close your eyes with me and visualize an 8-year-old girl with red hair and freckles at that playful but awkward stage, who’s newly banged-up shins and pink, sun-kissed nose are the rewards of a glorious Saturday spent playing outside in the heat of the summer. She is kneeling in the furrow of a garden row. In her hands she holds a treasure, discovered amid the dark green foliage beside her. It is shiny, and bright apple red, and she presses it with both hands to her face for an enormous bite. The delicate skin ruptures and a juicy torrent covers her cheeks and hands. Gulping and slurping with great satisfaction, she bends forward for a second bite and the tomato squirts onto her shirt and dribbles between her fingers, making dark, wet spots on the soil at her feet.
Only a homegrown tomato could make such a delicious mess. Tomatoes are simply my favorite food of all time. I eat them right off the vine all summer long. Most people agree that a store-bought tomato offers no comparison to one picked from the vine and devoured moments later. If there is one summer vegetable (actually a fruit) that most people will make any effort to grow themselves, it is the tomato.
I am hopeful that this is going to be our best year for tomatoes. Don’t you also hope for the same every year? Yesterday, I “potted up” some of our tomato seedlings. Tomato plants require a lot of sunlight and summer heat for the fruit to flourish and ripen—two things which are not abundant here in the Pacific Northwest. To grow well and reach its full potential, a tomato plant requires considerable effort from the gardener. Please keep this statement in mind as I tell you my love story.
I have deemed my husband, the Midnight Gardener, as a tomato whisperer. In January he combs the seed catalogs to select the best varieties to produce the best tasting tomatoes in our short growing season. The tiny seedlings are nurtured under lights with automatic timers and placed on heating mats. As they grow, they receive meticulous care: they are monitored daily, watered from the bottom at the root and are gently blown with a fan to simulate the outdoor weather. Generally, he plants 36 to 40 tomato plants each growing season. Last year I begged him to plant less. He agreed! I felt happy until I learned he had thirty-three seedlings. Wow! A lot less work.
My husband has tried all kinds of tomato varieties: Pruden’s Purple, Green Zebra, Sun Gold Cherry, Brandywine and Legend to name a few. My personal favorite is the yellow-fruited Taxi. So…so…soooo good; sweet, but not too sweet, with a little tang and a delicate, thin skin. Try it! At the peak of each tomato season he creates a blind taste test of all the varieties he has grown that year and asks me to declare the winner. Taxi has so far always been the winner, although two years ago, Hillbilly very nearly edged out Taxi and took the crown.
Here is where the love story comes in…my husband does not eat freshly-grown tomatoes. He does not eat them at all. He finds them to be squishy and will slide them from his plate to mine if ever one arrives from a restaurant kitchen. My tomato whisperer grows tomatoes because he wants me to enjoy my favorite food! He will often remind me that the French called it “pomme d’amour” or the Love Apple. He loves me? He loves me not? Oh, he loves me–36 tomato plants tells me that yes, he loves me!
I am going to tell you a secret–I do not enjoy planting these dozens of tomato plants every year. The Midnight Gardener grows tomato seedlings like a champ, but as we approach summer I plant them in the garden. It is not fun! I have to think all the positive thoughts in the world to finish the task. Last year my father-in-law patiently worked with me until they were all planted–so nice.
My weekly message this Wednesday is in the form of a simple equation.