Thursday, Aug. 1, 1996
If one could name tomato plants the way one names children, I would have to name mine Lyle and Erik.
It all started last winter when, at the local video store, I ran across Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. The movie, I had heard, was a dud, but what caught my eye was the prize bundled with the video: a bright yellow packet proclaiming “Grow Your Own KILLER TOMATOES (L. Esculentum Dangerous).” The back of the package disclosed that “[t]hese seeds … are known to have produced tomatoes of 3 pounds or more. In 1986, a tomato raised by some dude in Edmond, Oklahoma, weighed in at an incredible 7 lbs., 12 oz., and is listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
Tomatoes are among my favorite foods, and the thought of home-grown giant tomatoes, sliced fresh from the vine, made my mouth water. I fell for it. I bought the rotten movie (and it did turn out to be a real stinker) just to get those seeds.
Of course, there was nothing I could do about it right away; tomatoes don’t grow in the winter, even in Southern California. But the little packet of seeds sat there, tacked to my bulletin board, titillating my taste buds. As spring approached, I got to thinking that maybe I shouldn’t pin all my hopes on one kind of tomato–so I started buying seeds and plants of all varieties, the more unusual, the more irresistible: Great White, Cherokee Purple, Marble Striped, Jubilee, Double Rich, Odoriko. Each variety had its own succulent description: “Gives an abundance of rich, sweet fruit over a long growing season.” “Fruit is low in acidity and has an unusually mellow flavor reminiscent of Tangerine.” “Widely acclaimed as the world’s tastiest tomato.” Who could resist?
Soon the kitchen window box was filled with little containers, each sprouting dozens of tiny tomato plants. Anxious to give my children the ideal upbringing, I consulted books and sought the advice of anyone with an opinion on how best to grow tomatoes. “Never plant in the garden,” one school of thought went. “The soil isn’t rich enough. Use planters instead.” Another school shunned planters: “Too difficult to keep the moisture level constant. Plant only in the garden.”
Taking no chances, I decided to do both, and when I ran out of garden and planters in my own yard, I invaded my mother’s. I placed each little tomato plant into the soil with loving care, added nitrogen and urea, a hefty helping of bone meal, something called Osmacote, and watered with Miracle-Gro. Through the spring and early summer I visited my plants every evening after work, checking the moisture of the soil with a battery-powered meter, building cages, covering the plants with a net to guard against birds and raccoons, pinching off suckers, rearranging the leaves and branches to give them the maximum sunlight. My efforts were rewarded with abundant foliage and a sprinkling of yellow flowers that slowly turned into tiny fruits. No father was ever prouder.
Then came bitter disappointment. As the tomatoes started ripening, I noticed large black spots at their centers. Was it a pest? A fungus? A chemical imbalance? I turned to the experts again, sending furious messages over the Internet, buttonholing people at the nursery. The answer came back loud and clear: My plants were suffering from blossom-end rot. They had gotten too much nitrogen, not enough calcium.
The news cut me to the quick. Was there a solution? “You should have added some lime to the soil before you planted,” one expert smugly proclaimed. Where was this advice when I asked the first time? Was it too late? Were all my labors in vain? “You could try spraying the leaves with calcium solution and adding some gypsum to the soil, but there is no guarantee,” the expert advised. A drowning man grasps at straws, so I embarked on a campaign to give my plants the calcium they so sorely needed: I sprayed every little leaf, saturated the soil, added gypsum.
The effort finally paid off. Today I picked my first small basket of ripe tomatoes. The Great Whites–actually a creamy yellow with tiny red veins–dominated the harvest. The Marble Striped–actually entirely red–added color. And a few tiny Cherokee Purples–a deep shade of red with a purplish hue–provided an accent. The taste was not bad at all, but not remarkably better than that of the store-bought kind.
I am immensely proud of them nonetheless. Not just because they look different, but because they were grown with my own hands. In a world where everything we consume is prepared by other people in distant places, forcing the soil of my own garden to yield produce my family and I can enjoy gives me immense satisfaction. The first crop may not have landed me in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but it is the fruit of my own labors. And that gives them a special sweetness that store-bought tomatoes can never have.