Return of the Tomato

Buckle up everybody, I’m growing tomatoes again. Last year’s roller coaster of emotions was so intense, I just can’t keep myself away from the constant battle between man and nature that comes with growing tomatoes in an empty Brooklyn backyard. If tomato season 2k10 taught me how to swim, this year will take me into the deep end.

The adventure started on my trip to Italy earlier this year. I planned some dangerous operations, all of which would potentially result in the testing of some popular tomato mythology. Everything worked out according to plan and now I have some tricks up my sleeve for this year’s tomato season.

Trick #1 - The Seed
I started last year’s experiment by ordering seeds from a reputable company based in California. They were great and the seeds sprouted beautifully, but I craved more mystery. BINGO! I found a tomato on the tracks of the train station in Capua after spending the day on a buffalo farm.

Our friend/guide Nino was excited to see the tomato and told me that this was “an authentic San Marzano tomato.” There are a couple problems with this proclamation, mainly the fact that January is about as far from tomato season as you can get. If I found the tomato in August, I would be far less skeptical. Then there’s the sad truth that the San Marzano variety has been cross-bred so much that there remains no such thing as an “authentic” specimen. And any picture I’ve seen of an “authentic” San Marzano tomato looks pretty different from this one. But the fact remained that these lovely Italian tomatoes were about to become rail-kill if I didn’t intervene.

The least I could do was gut my precious cargo and dry out the seeds. This occurred a few days later in the kitchen of a bed and breakfast in Palermo.

 

Trick #2 - The Soil
Every pizza enthusiast knows the refrain Italian tomatoes are fantastic because they are grown in the rich volcanic soil around Mt Vesuvius. Well I have never been much of a fan of that tune and I fell even harder off the bandwagon after our tomato taste tests last year. The Italian samples scored much lower than those from California and Canada. There are a few good explanations for the discrepancy, such as our tasters’ inherent preference for familiar products and the possibility that some cans marked as being from Italy may have been filled with lies rather than rich and tasty pomodori. Regardless, I wanted to do my best to simulate the fertile soil surrounding the stunning and stoic Vesuvio.

That’s why I took a ride 1000 meters up the slopes of Mt Vesuvius and grabbed a handful of soil.

Yeah, I know. I grabbed mostly rocks and chunks of hardened volcanic debris. But let’s be honest with each other — my experiment will not be the most scientific endeavor imaginable. I spent some time lining my pocket with a plastic bag to contain whatever I managed to scoop, but the operation was complicated by the gang of van drivers watching my every move. But it all worked out and I escorted my bits of sacred volcanic ash back to Brooklyn.

When time came to plant my salvaged seeds, I sprinkled a bit of the finest debris atop some of my lightly packed tomato nests. Of course I didn’t grab any actual soil and there surely isn’t enough to run a comparison, but if a dusting of Vesuvian dust results in crazy-amazing tomatoes I will certainly be the last one laughing.

#3 - The Defense
I had some major issues last year with unwanted guests chomping down on my sweet red beauties so this season I’m upping my game with a jug of wolf urine. Thank you, Internet! That’s right, the Information Superhighway seems to have sources for all sorts of animal urine off every exit. Apparently vicious tomato-killing critters are not cool with hanging out in backyards that get whizzed in by wolves [Wait, am I?]. I’m not sure Brooklyn vermin have ever seen or even know that they should fear wolves, but I’m willing to take the chance.

I’m pretty excited about this year’s batch! Hopefully everything will work out and I can can some ripe beauties for winter use. Let’s just hope I don’t end up with a backyard that smells like Wolf wee-wee and rotten tomatoes.

NOOOOOOOO!!!

It looks like I flew too close to the sun. My beautiful tomato garden has been destroyed. Who’s to blame? I’ll tell you who: nature. For the past three days, New York has experienced weather more suited to Seattle. It’s constantly damp and gross, which is not good for adorable tomato plants. To be quite honest, I hadn’t checked on them for days. Rain means I don’t have to water them, right? NOPE! Rain means I should have thrown a tarp over them to stop wicked infiltration of unsolicited irrigation. I looked out the kitchen window this morning and saw this…

Those plants are supposed to stay vertical. I carefully tied the indeterminate vines to stakes with strips of pantyhose, as not to cut into the plants and prematurely end their lives. It looks like the weight of water droplets along with gusting winds was enough to take the plants down.

This is the reason great tomatoes are grown in Southern Italy and California’s central valley. Those regions don’t get rain in the summer, so controlled irrigation is possible. We’ll have to wait for next year to test the assumption that volcanic soil from Mt Vesuvius creates perfect growing conditions, but what good is soil below if your plants are at left vulnerable to nature from above?

Upon closer inspection, I found evidence of destruction left by yet another of nature’s dark warriors: rodents. It looks like a real jerk scampered around taking a single bite out of each ripe tomato.I know the photo seems blurry but I just wanted you to experience what it looked like through tear-filled eyes.

I was afraid this might happen so I’m glad I picked a few tomatoes while they were ripe, but it looks like the plants are out of commission unless I can fix them up tomorrow after the rain stops. In the meantime, I grabbed any untouched fruits and brought them inside. Now I have to learn how to can tomatoes. Sounds like a great project for tomorrow!

Here they are, the lonely soldiers who made it through the Great Tomato Ravaging of 2010. I’ll have more updates after tomorrow’s plant fixing / tomato canning operation is complete.

Tomato Update: They’re Turning RED!!!

I know I know - they are supposed to turn red, but this has been a long and tedious process so I am entitled to celebrate. People freak their baby’s first haircut or the funny position in which they found their dog sleeping, but I have no baby and I have no dog. Instead, I have nine tomato plants growing in an improvised plot behind my Brooklyn apartment. What started as a handful of seeds is now taking up significant space in my backyard. Some of the plants remain barren but others are starting to show me they mean business and I’m ready to cash their lycopene-filled checks at the bank of my belly.

I still have a few weeks to go before these suckers are ready to eat, but I’m really excited that they are starting to ripen. I see more baby tomatoes popping up every day and I think things are going to really kick in as we approach August. Some helpful YouTube videos showed me how to prune the plants and I have been paying careful attention to extraneous branches that grow off the main vine. The idea is to pinch off the unwanted bits so that all sugar is diverted to the tomato-bearing arms. It’s my first time growing tomatoes so I’m trying to do everything I can to learn the ropes in preparation for next year’s garden.

  

The photo on the left shows a couple San Marzanos just hangin’ around and turning red, much to my delight. A mysterious variety ripens in the other photo — on of my neighbors must have forgotten that she left this plant in the backyard so I assumed responsibility and it is now producing the loveliest fruit of the bunch. I’m pretty amazed because the bulk of growth happened when I was out of town for a couple of days, thus unable to obsess over watering and pruning.

Perhaps patience is the secret ingredient for a successful tomato crop, but my built-in recipe includes heaping helpings of nervousness and torment. I’ve just heard too many horror stories of unwanted backyard guests enjoying tomato season more than the humans who made it possible and I’m getting more afraid of the inevitable tomato thief with every day that passes. Because as the tomatoes ripen and turn red, they become even more appealing to The Enemy. I’ve read a few tips about keeping rats away, from cayenne pepper spray to Irish Spring soap. You can see the chicken wire cage I built in the photo above, but I’m not convinced it’s going to do much. If I disappear for a couple weeks, it just means I’m sleeping with the tomatoes.

If you have any tips for keeping The Enemy out, I’m all ears.

Tomato Update - GROUNDED!

Sometime in mid-March I planted a bunch of seeds I purchased from Tomatofest in California. Seedlings of several varieties sprouted: San Marzano, Super San Marzano, San Marzano Redorta and Roma. I spent weeks keeping their Styrofoam cup homes in direct sunlight and out of harsh temperatures. There were several times I thought the plants had stopped growing, only to find major developments the next day. This week, I took a big step and transplanted my little darlings into the Earth.

My neighborhood in Brooklyn has an industrial past, so I don’t trust the soil in our yard. I brought in some soil through some friends who are doing a massive gardening project in NJ and let it warm up in the sun for a few days. The next challenge was finding something to put the soil into, so I kept my eyes peeled and found a bookshelf on the streets of Soho right outside Lombardi’s! I dug up a hole in the yard in an area that gets the most sunlight and nested the bookshelf/raised bed into its new home. I’m only using the frame of the unit, so there is no back and only one shelf in the center for support.

These tomatoes are supposed to have lots of room, so I kept the plants super spaced out. I’m probably giving them too much space but I really want them to have a shot at survival. I covered the soil with black plastic to keep weeds out and moisture in. It will also help to keep the soil warm, which will make the tomatoes happy!

I’ll be modifying the setup a bit over the next few weeks, adding bamboo support posts for the plants and some chicken wire around the outside of the raised bed.These things have survived longer than I thought they would so I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll make it to harvest in late August. 

Tomato Update

I started growing tomatoes about a month ago and things seem to be moving along very well. I have three varieties of San Marzano: San Marzano Redorta, Super San Marzano and just straight-up San Marzano. The seed company also sent me a bonus pack of Roma, so I tossed those into some dirt too! I planted the seeds in coffee cups with holes punched in the bottom for drainage. I read somewhere that they need warm soil, so I stuck an electric blanket under the plants and that seemed to do the trick. When the sprouts started to appear, I switched from coffee cup lid to plastic bag. These little guys need some sort of covering so they don’t dry out.

 

At this point, just about every seed I planted has become an adorable little plant. I’m growing these inside a Brooklyn apartment so there are a few tips and tricks I read that have been helping me through the urban gardening process. To give the seedlings a feel for the wind, I have been blowing a fan on them for about 20 minutes every morning. This is supposed to make the plants stronger.

This is my first time growing tomatoes so I’m pretty darn nervous. I hope they are getting enough sunlight, but I hope I’m not leaving them too exposed. There are two plants in every cup, could they be too crowded? Am I watering them too much? Too little? If anybody has any thoughts or tips, please share. 

I’ve gotten pretty excited about these little dudes so I just planted some seeds for oregano, basil (2 varieties) and rosemary. If all goes well, this is going to be a DELICIOUS summer!

Operation: Tomato

I’ve been reading a lot about tomatoes lately and I am amazed at the fruit’s speedy rise to power. In the early 16th century, nobody in Europe had ever heard about the tomato. It took almost 200 years before Europeans were even eating the darn things, since public opinion held that they were filled with poison. Tomato fever took hold fast and, before long, it was thought to be the healthiest fruit available. Several American entrepreneurs were even making “life-saving” pills out of the darn things!

My personal tomato history lesson started with a book called The Tomato in America, which gives a great history of modern tomato use. It’s a fascinating story, but I wanted a deeper discussion of the ‘golden apple.’ I got what I needed from Arthur Allen’s new book Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato. It covers history, farming politics and genetics.

Now I’ve got tomato fever. I did some research and ordered seeds from one of the most reputable seed sources mentioned in these books, TomatoFest. By the end of this week, I will be planting three varieties of San Marzano. This is all new to me, so it will truly be an adventure. I’ll be posting about my progress and hopefully I’ll end up with something that’s edible. Right now, all I have are six packs of seeds. But you know what they say. You can’t do awesome experiments with urban farming and end up with a sweet bunch of tomatoes without a pack of seeds.