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Heirloom Tomatoes: An Extravagant Harvest
Tomatoes as a family ritual and bird sanctuary
We dream about tomatoes. It has been five months since we had our last tomato from the garden, and now our hopes and dreams are about to take root again. We have our lights, heat mats, soil mix, and seeds organized and ready for another season. The first round of cool-season vegetables has been planted, and they are followed by peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes in late March and early April.
Planting tiny seeds and tending to fragile little plants is the beginning of another annual cycle that culminates in an extravagant harvest in late summer. We grow 6-8 varieties of heirloom tomatoes that we choose based on their flavor and beauty. These include Pink Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Kellog’s Breakfast, Black Krim, and Mexico Midget.
The tomato plants spend a few weeks growing under lights before they take up residence in a cold frame in the garden. Sometime in early May, when the weather looks settled, they get planted directly into a garden bed that has been amended with compost, biochar, and alfalfa meal. Shortly after that, we set up our tomato cages to support the plant's rapid growth.
Our cages are 8 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter. This may seem oversized, but we have settled on these dimensions after decades of trial and error. Tomato plants are vines, and our tomatoes grow around 12 feet tall. This means they will quickly grow through and out of smaller cages and then flop over onto themselves. This leads to disease and rotten tomatoes. Hence the big sturdy cages. The base of our cages is made from woven wire fence, and they are topped with another section of fence that has 2 x 3-inch openings.
These cages are zip tied to t-posts that are pounded into the top of the base plate. As soon as the plants get to be 2-3 feet tall, I start pruning to manage their growth. I begin by removing all leaves and side shoots within 15 inches of the soil so that air can flow under the plants. As the plant grows, I remove suckers and train the vines to stay inside the cage. Removing some of the suckers helps keep the foliage open enough to allow for airflow throughout the canopy. This reduces disease pressure and helps you find ripe tomatoes.
Soon after pruning, I mulch the plants with some combination of grass clippings, leaves, partially finished compost, and straw. I also water during dry spells to maintain even soil moisture. (There is a delicate balance to watering. Too much water dilutes flavor and causes splitting.) Once a week, I add fish emulsion and kelp to the water.
Once the plants reach 6 feet tall, they slow down a bit and are easier to manage. We can now relax a little and start admiring the flowers and small green tomatoes that are forming. I try not to pay too much attention to the tomatoes at this point, as I like to be surprised by finding the first full-sized tomato.
Sometimes, we find other surprises hiding in our tomato plants. In the summer of 2021, cardinals built a nest in one of our cherry tomato plants. We got to watch the entire life cycle unfold: from nest building to feeding nestlings, to fledging young, to watching the entire family visit our bird feeder.
Once the tomatoes reach full size, we know it will not be long before we start to see subtle color changes in the tomatoes that indicate they are starting to ripen. We are still a week or two away from a ripe, full-size tomato, but we start planning for the occasion. Our dinner conversation starts to drift toward tomatoes. We make plans to buy sunflower seeds, mozzarella cheese, and mayonnaise. We discuss the best types of bread for making tomato sandwiches.
Out in the garden, I keep track of another key ingredient that supports tomatoes. This means making sure that our basil is on track to be available when the tomatoes start ripening. Our lives subconsciously start revolving around tomatoes. My teenage sons start appearing in the garden for no apparent reason. They often end up standing next to the tomato plants. I think they are drawn to them, but they cannot bring themselves to make an overt display of affection.
Around this time in mid-July we get our first ripe cherry tomato. These little ½-¾ inch tomatoes tantalize our taste buds and set the stage for the main act. The full-size tomatoes are now in various stages of ripening, and the earliest ones show a faint red blush.
I start walking past the tomatoes every day, paying close attention to Cherokee Purple. I move the leaves around and inspect the tomatoes hoping to find a surprise. This is when you learn that the shadowy world inside a tomato plant plays tricks on you. Especially, this time of year when your search image is unrefined. I often think I have found a ripe tomato, but when I reach out and give it a slight squeeze, I realize it lacks the subtle softness of full ripeness. The final tactile clue is not quite there yet.
Eventually, the day comes when the first full-sized tomato is fully ripe. Six months of anticipation have built this moment up in our minds. I gently cradle the ripe tomato in my hand and carefully snip the stem with pruners. Now, I am face to face with mystery. Hundreds of chemicals are hidden within this tomato, which is an amalgamation of place and love. The plant roots are deeply intertwined and connected with the complex life in the soil. The tomato plant feeds this soil life by exuding some of the carbohydrates it generates through photosynthesis into the soil. The fungi, bacteria, and other organisms in the soil reciprocate by sharing nutrients with the plant. These mutually beneficial relationships produce tomatoes with complex nutrition.
The tomato is imperfect and beautiful. The top of the tomato is dark purple. Irregular thin purple lines radiate down the sides and fade into shiny brick-red skin. Thin superficial cracks stretch across the skin as if an artist felt compelled to add a little something extra to this tomato. It is close to bursting open. There are subtle ribs embedded within pleasant plumpness and symmetry. It is charming, sensuous, and a little wild.
That wildness manifests as an enticing aroma that emanates from the tomato and fills our kitchen. The shiny red tomato is now resting on our kitchen counter, and I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my wife and kids. As they return from work and school, I watch as they walk through the kitchen. Sometimes, they see the tomato right away and I can see their eyes get big as they admire it. Other times, the aroma hits them first, and I can see them pause and their expressions change. A subtle smile flashes across their face.
We all know dinner is going to include tomato slices and slivered basil on fresh mozzarella cheese. This is one of the highlights of our year. We will eat tomatoes in some form almost every day in August and September.
I prepare the tomatoes by cutting the mozzarella cheese into ¼-inch thick rounds and laying them out on a platter. I then place a thin layer of slivered basil over the cheese. The tomato gets cut into slices slightly thicker than the cheese. I match up the tomato slices with the different sizes of cheese and lay them on top. Everything is now in place to highlight the flavor of the tomato.
We forego other dishes at this point and gather around the tomatoes on the dining room table. So much work and anticipation have built up at this point, I often find myself wondering if the tomato will live up to our expectations. This is despite the fact that I have 25 years of experience indicating that they never disappoint. This year is no different. Tomatoes from our garden always exceed our high expectations.
The first bite combines the aroma of the tomato and basil with a rich umami cascade of flavors that dance across our taste buds. We silently experience this visceral delight as we eat two or three slices, and then they are gone. We are left with deep satisfaction and an appreciation for our shared effort and the bounty of our garden.
Tomatoes are more than food for us, they bring us together to enact an annual ritual of care and nurturing of life. We are grateful for the opportunity to engage in mutually beneficial relationships that enrich us beyond measure.
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