You may have planted your tomatoes in May and are cursing the sorry little withered plants right now. Or you may have decided that it wasn't worth the trouble, that you'd just as soon buy them after you invested dollar after dollar in special bags of dirt and fancy tomato plants and fertilizer you have to mix up according to a particular recipe. Or you may be forlornly scooping up mildewed clumps of tomatoes that are rotting from the rain we've just had.
No matter what, you should read this article. Especially if you understand and appreciate the incredible, once-a-year-only pleasure or a home-grown tomato. You can't buy them. Even at some of the produce markets they are a little suspect, in my opinion. You have to wait until somebody like Jim Thompson, tomato-grower extraordinaire, shares a few of his mouth-watering beauties.
I'm trying again this year to grow my own. Last year six plants yielded three tiny green balls that lasted about a week before they were eaten up by something I never saw. I worked for weeks amending my soil and weeding it regularly and watering the hell out of everything. Of course, I planted my garden in the woods. Which was nice and sunny in April, until the leaves came out...
Even though it's July, it's not too late to plant tomatoes. In fact, the time is nigh for the second round of these luscious beauties. If you're picking basket after basket off your towering vines, you can stop reading now, and instead call me with your secrets.
In the meantime, I'll share a few tips from tried-and-true tomato growers.
"I plant my second batch around the 4th of July, and have gorgeous tomatoes well into fall," Nancy Johnson says. She prepares her beds in the fall, starting with loads of horse manure she gets from Lane Taylor's horse barn on Lookout Mountain. "I let it sit all winter so it's not fresh," she says. She strips the lower leaves off every plant so that there's just a stalk and a few top leaves showing. She waters in the morning only, and is careful not to get the leaves wet.
Dr. Sam Currin and Andy Stockett plant a vegetable garden together every summer up at their community pool on Lookout. They work a bag or two of fertilizer into the soil with a tiller, and plant a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes that they get from Sun and Shade in Tiftonia. "Cherokee Purple' and 'Mr. Stripey' are two of my favorites, probably because of the names," Sam admits. As a rule, tomatoes that are deep red or purple are going to have fuller flavors and a tad more acidity. 'Cherokee Purple', 'Better Boy', 'Sweet Baby Girl' and 'Marmara' are in this category. Tomatoes that are more orange and even yellow are milder, especially when you eat them as soon as they are ripe. The darker the get, the fuller the flavor, but they are sweet as a general rule. 'Pineapple' and 'Orange Strawberry' hint at that sweetness. Pink tomatoes may look like they're not quite ripe, but actually their skins are translucent and they are very sweet. Their names are delightful. Don't you want to know more about 'Rose de Berne', 'Arkansas Traveler' and 'Watermelon Beefsteak'?
I always thought green tomatoes were just tomatoes that weren't ripe. But they are a whole category unto them selves. Sharp and tangy, their flavors are complex and zesty. 'Green Zebra', 'Cherokee Green' and 'Evergreen' are some favorites. And white tomatoes aren't freaks of nature. They are yet another category and although I've never tasted one, 'Great White', 'Snow White' and 'Italian Ice' are all on my bucket list.
Sam's and Andy's plants are easily six-feet tall and laden with the most ridiculously beautiful tomatoes I've ever seen. They rarely water them, and don't worry about fencing or netting to keep pests from eating them. I can see how. They have more than they know what to do with, so a couple of caterpillers chewing a few low fruits don't bother anyone.
After surveying my waterlogged tomato patch, I rallied with the visions of 'Yellow Pear' and 'Rosalita' as I inspected new plants at the nursery. I dug a little trench for each of my plants and laid them down with only the top leaves above ground. I couldn't remember whether to pinch off the leaves or not, so I did. I heard that builds strong root systems. Oh, and I moved my bed to the sun.
I know it will be a while, but I think homegrown tomatoes will make the Fall even more welcome. My mouth is already watering for the juicy, earthy tang of a 'real' tomato, and I'd love to pick one from my garden. But if I have the same success as I have in the past, which is zero, I'll just head over to the Currin's and drop a few hints.