Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Tomato-Growing Habit

Every year I forget about the smell of tomato plants.  I remember, or think I remember, in the way that memories are never quite accurate, the sweet-tart taste of homegrown, vine-ripened tomatoes, I tell stories about that rainy summer when tomatoes covered every kitchen surface for the month of June, and I look forward to the tomato-basil-eggplant meals of late June and early July.  But I also remember what a pain tomato plants are, with their narrow planting window, tendency to overgrow themselves, incessant water needs, and inability to set fruit once nighttime lows creep past the mid-80's.

In fact it's something of a mystery why gardeners are so loyal to tomato plants, especially here in Austin.  In the same season that homegrown tomatoes ripen, excellent, locally-grown tomatoes are cheap and plentiful at the farmer's markets, at the food co-op, or, recently, even at the big grocery stores.  Tomato plants are demanding, requiring extra space, fertile soil, and regular watering, especially in the heat.  They grow so fast that even the cutest, healthiest tomato plant will quickly grow into mess of under-supported vines that definitely doesn't hide within a decorative or front-yard garden.  And, despite the fact that they are hot-season plants from the tropics, tomato plants, unlike their long-season, workhorse relatives, the peppers, can't actually make tomatoes in the heat of summer.

When I first had a garden here, I made the beginner's mistake of thinking that I had the whole, long summer to grow tomatoes.  After all, in Oregon, where I grew up and first smelled a tomato plant, tomatoes needed every minute of summer sun that they could get, rarely producing much fruit before late August or September.  In some years, when the rains extended into July, or when partly-cloudy conditions ruled the so-called summer, the tomatoes didn't ripen until October, or didn't ripen at all.  So when I began gardening in Texas, I was shocked to find out that our tomato-growing season was actually quite short, limited on the spring-side by the last killing freeze, which usually occurred in early March, and limited on the summer side by the nighttime low temperatures.  In a cool, wet year, tomatoes produce well into July, but in a hot, dry year, when daytime temperatures climb into the 100's early in the summer, dragging the nighttime lows up into the mid-80's, tomatoes stop setting fruit as early as mid-June.  The summer before last – remember when it was 107˚ F in June? – my tomato plants stopped producing almost as soon as they had started.

Despite the challenges, tomato growing is central to vegetable gardening in Texas.  No other time of year is more crowded or crazy at the local nurseries than the last few weeks of March, the official tomato-planting window.  When the trees are leafing, the wildflowers are blooming, and the smell of nectar is in the air, even the most occasional of gardeners is pulled outside, to dig up a square of yard and plant something.  But why tomatoes?  Why not peppers, which are more drought-tolerant and produce throughout the summer and fall?  Why not basil, which doesn't keep for long, even fresh from the farmer's market, but is easy to grow and loved by the bees?

I think that tomatoes have us hooked on their smell.  Not the smell of the tomato fruits, but the smell of the tomato plants, that sticky, gummy, viscous smell of hairy vines.  Plants are masters of biochemistry – some, like poison ivy, make toxins that repel us, some, like poppies, make opiates, both real and figurative, that intoxicate us, and some, like apple trees, make the sugars that we crave.  My theory is that somewhere within the sticky, green, summery smell of the tomato vine is a chemical that stimulates a combination of home-comfort-warmth-of-summer receptors in my brain.  The first year that I learned to grow tomatoes properly, Texas style, at the community gardens, the smell of those plants transported me to childhood, to my mother's garden, to that feeling of warmth and perfectness and peace that comes only at the height of summer in Oregon.  I couldn't believe that I had forgotten about the smell of those plants, the essence of summer garden, and realized at that moment that, while fall gardening may make more sense in Texas, I had to grow summer garden, even if it did mean taking my chances with the summer itself.

So I grew tomatoes at community garden plots for several years, and I learned, by copying the most-successful of my neighboring gardeners, how to work within the rushed season – to plant transplants, not seeds, in mid-March, to protect the baby plants using clear plastic sheeting, to give each plant plenty of space and an industrial-strength tomato cage, not one of those flimsy things from the garden-supply store, to mulch heavily, and to expect the season to be over by mid-July.  And I had some successful years, especially the rainy-June summers of 2003 and 2004, when I harvested so many tomatoes that I had to learn how to do water-bath canning.

Then I moved into this house, with its yard, and gave up my community garden plot because I wanted to direct my gardening energies into this property.  Which was a lovely idea, but, given the slope of the property, the shade in the backyard, how overgrown the yard was, and my limited time, I spent the first few years here simply keeping the weeds down and planting a few annuals in the garden by the driveway.  Three falls ago, I located, cleared, and mulched a small, almost-level patch of sunny ground to make a vegetable garden, and the following spring I over-planted the space with tomatoes, peppers, and basil.  The tiny garden was overcrowded, and the season ended early because of the heat.  But, once again, as I squeezed myself between the tomato plants and the wall of the house to water, I smelled those plants, and was struck with how I had forgotten about that smell, and began making plans for next year, for a bigger tomato garden.

Next year turned to the year after, which brings me to the present.  I almost bailed on the project a few times, but I kept telling myself, I want a tomato garden along the south wall.  So I cut down the last of the remaining weedy shrubs along the house and built a retaining wall to tame the double slope, away from the house and toward the back of the house. 

Then I amended the soil with compost and peat moss and set out my tomato cages to see how many baby tomato plants I could buy. 

The plants established quickly and, by the end of March, doubled in size. 

Recently, after watering, I pinched a few sucker stems off the tomato plants.  Once again, I was struck by that tomato plant smell, sticky and hairy and green, transporting me back to my garden two years ago, to the rainy summers at the community gardens, and to my mom's garden so many years ago.  I guess, in a way, I grow tomatoes not just for this summer's garden but also to remember all to the gardens of summers past, and to remember how good it feels to be immersed in summer.

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