The Tomato

Julia Child couldn’t imagine civilization without onions; for me, life without tomatoes would seem incomplete. Of the hundreds of varieties available, three favorites always find space in my summer garden.

My organic garden was formerly a tobacco farm. Of the two dozen delicious heirlooms I once grew elsewhere, only ‘Ruby Gold’ survives the wilt disease that slumbers in my soil. By modern breeding standards, it’s a washout. The two-pound fruits crack. Plants yield sparsely and ripen late. Yet a single gorgeous golden fruit, its flesh and skin streaked with red, offers the most sublime taste, a pleasantly startling blend of sweetness and tart tang.

I also grow two disease-resistant hybrids: ‘Early Girl’ and ‘Sweet Million’. Two months after transplanting, ‘Early Girl’ ripens baseball-size red fruits that pack as much taste as the more famous ‘Better Boy’, at a size that’s easier for small families to use. In addition to fresh eating, ‘Early Girl’ makes spectacular sauce.

The name ‘Sweet Million’ stretches the truth, but a single plant does yield hundreds of inch-wide cherry tomatoes that sparkle with both sugary and acidic flavors. I dry slices of fruit by the quart every summer, using my Ronco food dryer, for winter salads, pizzas, and tabbouleh. Distilled to their essence, one savory bite stirs memories of summer.

Tomatoes grow best in full sun and rich soil with a pH around 6.5. Avoid heavy doses of high-nitrogen fertilizers, which generate extra leaves at the expense of fruit. Drought stress can trigger blossom-end rot, a physiological condition caused by calcium deficiency. Mulching helps maintain even soil moisture, but should blossom-end rot occur, a calcium chloride spray that will alleviate the problem. If your hard-working plants look peaked in late summer, a stinky drink of fish emulsion will perk them up.

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