Yes, I know they exist, because I’ve seen them. I’m talking about people who don’t like tomatoes.
Hard to believe, I realize, so when I meet one of these creatures I feel like Captain Kirk, who, when his crew encountered an alien race of humanoids, said in his trademark delivery, “They are, so like us, yet, they do not love…tomatoes.”
Okay, so Kirk didn’t exactly say that, but you get what I mean. The concept of someone not loving tomatoes is so fundamentally foreign to me that when I hear a person describe how they don’t care for the squishy texture, or their constitution can’t handle the seeds or the acidity, I just stare blankly. Part of me wants to tell them, well, actually there are tomatoes that aren’t squishy, or seedy, or acid, but I end up thinking, “What’s the point?” They’ll never understand.
Then again they’re talking to someone whose affection for homegrown tomatoes, especially heirloom varieties, goes well beyond a predilection, and hovers somewhere between a concerning level of obsession and full-on lunacy. I love everything about them: the variety of colors, the tastes, the textures. There’s really nothing else that compares to a fresh-picked Oaxacan Jewel, sliced up on a plate with nothing else.
It appears that some people find my tomato interest a little strange. They tell me. “You’re growing 100 tomato plants!? You must be nuts!” More questions invariably ensue. “What do you have, a farm?”
No, I tell them, I have two community garden plots and small gardens at home and at my office. And I mention that I grow lots of other vegetables as well, but they usually get stuck on that 100-plant thing. The next question is inevitable. “What can you possibly do with all of those tomatoes? You must REALLY like them.”
I guess that’s a bit of an understatement, and I know how it sounds—but I can explain. Ever since I started growing heirloom tomatoes by seed six years ago, the number of plants I produce has grown each year. In 2012, I started over 400 tomato plants, and gave away most of them. Last spring, I crossed the 100-plant threshold in my garden through a combination of my own seedlings and plants donated by friends. At the start of the season I wasn’t necessarily looking to put in that many, but I’ve found that I have a hard time turning down any tomato plant, so as I accumulated more and saw that I was getting close to one hundred I thought, why not?
As for what I do with the tomatoes themselves, that’s the easy part. Sure, with that many plants, I do get a ton—see the photo of my dining room table from last September. (That’s basically one-day’s harvest.) But these are nearly all heirloom plants, which usually produce significantly less fruit than hybrid varieties. If I grew 100 hybrid plants I would need to operate a truck farm.
As it is, I never feel that I have too many tomatoes. We have all we need at home for eating fresh and canning and freezing and drying and making into sauce, and the rest I give away. Having done this for a few years, there’s an established list of friends and relatives to whom I give tomatoes, with more being added all the time. I enjoy seeing the expression on someone’s face when I hand them a box of heirlooms; a jewel-like assortment of colors, shapes and sizes. It’s like getting an Easter basket.
And I’m always surprised by how many people have never tasted heirloom tomatoes, and gratified when they report back to me later how they used them, and which ones they especially enjoyed. That helps me when it comes to deciding which varieties I’ll grow next time, because as much as I’d like to, I can’t grow ‘em all.
Now, in January, is when I go over my notes from last season and make my choices for this year, remembering which ones had thicker skins that didn’t split easily after it rains, which were most productive, had excellent flavor, a little or a lot of seeds. (See my favorites from 2012 in tomorrow’s post)
Sometimes it just comes down to the name. Heirloom tomatoes are often whimsically named, and for me that’s part of their appeal. So I mull over if I want to try Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Red, White Rabbit, Hogs Heart, or Ding Wall Scotty. Whichever I choose, I’m happy for the chance to discover a new favorite.
And now that I’ve achieved the 100-plant mark in my garden, I’m determined to cut back. This year I’ll only grow 80.
—Tom McKusickFollow Notes from Northern Gardener throughout January as we offer our series on 31 Days to a Great Northern Vegetable Garden. Tomorrow: Favorite Heirloom Varieties.