Joe Hewitt

Growing Tomatoes

When people asked me what I was going to grow in my new garden, my response was, "Anything but tomatoes."

Blame it on my Italian relatives for excessive use of marinara, or on American restaurants for the pale, mealy wedges atop salads, but I just don't like tomatoes. I was excited about growing peaches, blueberries, broccoli, and just about anything else.

I'm fortunate to live near Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz, CA. Their main gig is growing produce for a Michelin-starred restaurant, but they also teach an array of gardening classes. After having a great time in their spring vegetable class, I returned excitedly to the class roster to find another. Given the name of the farm -- "love apple" is an antiquated French name for tomatoes -- you can probably guess which plant most of the classes were about. I signed up for one nonetheless, convinced that only a selfish gardener would refuse to grow things they don't enjoy eating.

Seed party

The farm's owner, Cynthia Sandberg, opened class with a refrain I'd heard before: Homegrown heirloom tomatoes are infinitely superior to the supermarket variety. I wanted to believe her, but I wasn't optimistic.

And then she began passing around hundreds of jars of seeds for us to choose from -- Black Zebra! Green Giant! Amazon Chocolate! -- and my collector's instinct kicked in as I imagined the menagerie of fruit that would burst from Cynthia's catalog into my garden.

Selecting which seeds to plant was kind of stressful. The jars swapped hands so fast, I barely had time to pinch out seeds, much less discern orange striped this from sweet red that. I ended up shooting for a mix of colors and shapes and hoping for the best.

My tomato pets

Once I got home, I learned that tomatoes are more like pets than houseplants. The fun of watching them sprout soon gave way to despair as many seedlings wilted and died when I forgot to check them even for a day or two.

Despite having all the recommended equipment -- a heating mat, grow lights, a fan, timers, and temperature sensors -- they mostly just needed personal attention (and water). As they grew, the seedlings had to be carried into the sun during the day and brought back in at night. Once they outgrew their trays, I had to transplant them to larger pots, and soon after, still larger 1-gallon pots.

From seed trays to 4-inch pots to 1-gallon pots.

I hadn't considered what I was going to do with 100 seedlings until I was at the nursery buying 100 plastic pots. My garden is big, but not that big. Neglect thinned the numbers quite a bit, but I still wound up with more than 60 plants in 1-gallon pots. A dozen or so found their way to friends' gardens, and somehow I found room for 25 plants in the ground.

Fish heads, aspirin, rusty cages

Twenty-five plants may not seem like a lot until you try to lift a coil of 25 steel tomato cages -- each 7 feet tall -- from the bed of a pickup. Cynthia insisted on this height and even predicted the vines might grow taller and spill over (indeed, they would). Before I could set up the cages, I needed to get the tomatoes in the ground. Of course, my needy pets insisted I first round up a witch's brew of soil amendments.

Only thing missing was frog's legs.

According to Cynthia's prescription, each young plant should be buried with the following: one fish head, a handful of egg shells, bone meal, worm castings, tomato fertilizer, mycorrhizal fungi, and two aspirin. (Yes, aspirin. Apparently it combats disease.)

After three months of babying the seedlings, I wasn't about to slack off now. It took a few phone calls to track down the fish heads, but Whole Foods came through for me with beautiful 1-pound salmon heads. Into the ground they went, up went the cages, down went the irrigation tubes, and then the wait began.

Nothing seemed to happen for weeks at a time, and I kind of forgot about them for the summer. When the fruit began to ripen in August, there was suddenly a lot happenening, and not all of it good. I learned a few things the hard way.

Lesson #1 Cages are there for a reason

Tomatoes are vines, and when vines spill out of their cages, they need to be pushed back in. Otherwise, tomatoes will soon be growing in hard-to-reach places, or worse, rotting on the ground. Young and limber vines are easily snaked back into the cage, but mature woody vines will only snap if you try this.

Lesson #2 Treat blossom-end rot

About half the plants had fruit with "blossom-end rot," a condition caused by poor calcium absorption. The egg shells were supposed to help with this, but I guess I didn't use enough. There's tons of literature on the web on blossom-end rot prevention -- this year I'll be on top of it.

Lesson #3 Fear the rain

Coastal California summers are bone-dry, which is great for tomatoes. But in late August, we had an unexpected downpour. My vines were covered in almost-ripe fruit that I was waiting to get super-ripe, but in the days after the rain many of them began to split and rot. Lesson learned: When it rains, immediately harvest everything that is remotely edible.

Lesson #4 Know your diseases

In early September, many of the plants began to look parched, with droopy and desiccated leaves. I thought they just needed more water, but I was mistaken. The dead leaves were from "late blight," a dreaded tomato disease. Guess what "late blight" loves? Water! Oops.

Before I realized my error and stopped the irrigation, a couple plants were killed to the ground. Others stopped fruiting, and what fruit was left didn't ripen. Fortunately, only about 1/3 of the plants were affected. This year I'll definitely back off on water later in the season.

Lesson #5 Be ready for an avalanche

Growing the plants was hard work, I thought, but that was nothing compared to the work of harvest. My four cherry tomato plants started ripening in early August, and I expected the rest to steadily follow for the next couple of months, giving me plenty of time to deal with them. Instead, my other 21 non-cherry plants ripened all at once in early September, and I had about three weeks to deal with the bulk of them.

A typical day in September.

September was a tomato-chopping, crushing, canning, freezing, and dehydrating frenzy. I ate tomatoes with nearly every meal and delivered heaping baskets to friends and neighbors. With my freezer and pantry overflowing, the tomatoes still kept coming. I was greeted with the smell of mold each morning as I walked past the growing backlog in my kitchen. The first time I had to compost a moldy tomato was sad, but by mid-September, every lost tomato was kind of a relief. The lesson here is that 25 plants is too many for me. I'll probably have eight this year.

But how do they taste?

You might be wondering at this point if I changed my mind about the merits of eating "love apples." I'll say this much: A tomato, picked when warm from the sun, so ripe it's on the verge of going bad, and eaten while standing in the garden, is better than ice cream. On the other hand, some of the varieties I grew, despite being fancy heirlooms, tasted no better than a winter greenhouse tomato from Safeway.

I conducted a taste test with my parents with each of the 25 varieties. One clear winner emerged, and that is Orange Russian 117, which is not only the most beautiful tomato I've ever seen, but tastes more like a peach than a tomato. Other favorites included Coyote and Sungold cherries; the hefty Casey's Pure Yellow and German Red Strawberry; the striped Tigerella; and George O'Brien for making sauce. Some, like Black Plum, tasted just OK when raw, but were spectacular when dehydrated.

Until next year

As it turns out, I was right all along. Tomatoes aren't that great -- unless you grow the right varieties, eat them at the right time, and process them the right way. As I ripped out the last of the tomatoes in October, it was clear I was ending a cycle that would begin again every year for as long as I'm fit to garden.