Just let a gardener turn away for a bit and sly tomato plants will grow like crazy

August 21, 1996|By ROB KASPER

THE WORLD MAY little note if you slip out of town for a few days, but your tomato plants will notice your absence, and they will get even.

Tomato plants that have been as lethargic as Bob Dole's early campaign, suddenly show amazing signs of life. You leave the garden untended for a few days, and when you get back, the tomato turnout seems to rival that of Republicans at the big Dole-Jack Kemp rally in Buffalo. In both cases you wonder, is this going to last?

Having a big blowout when you are away is one of the games tomato plants play with gardeners. The games start early in the summer, when yellow blooms show up on the plants. The blooms get the gardener excited. Soon they turn into green tomatoes. The gardener starts licking his lips, dreaming of plates of sliced tomatoes swimming in olive oil. Then the green tomatoes get bigger, and the gardener starts reading recipes for pasta sauces. Next a few of the tomatoes turn tempting shades of pink.

By now, the gardener is salivating; he can practically taste the sweet fruit. It seems that all that stands between him and juicy bliss is a few more days of sunshine. That is when the tomato plants begin their tease. Their fruit remains perpetually pink. Repeatedly the gardener visits the plants, like a suitor pursuing a lover, looking for some signs of softness. Repeatedly he leaves empty-handed.

Eventually he learns that the only way to speed the process along is to threaten to leave. He walks into the garden and casually remarks, "I'll be going out of town for a few days." Then he hops in his car and drives around the block. Before his car reaches the corner, these previously unyielding pink tomatoes have begun to turn soft and red.

If a gardener drives beyond the corner and actually leaves town, as I did recently, he returns to a garden that is a riot of ripe fruit.

When I returned after a few days' vacation, my garden, which was never exactly a model of decorum, was out of control. Tipsy tomato plants, loaded with ripe fruit, had fallen, some pulling their tomato cages down with them. Fat tomatoes were everywhere. Hanging on plants. Hiding in the weeds. Rolling in the dirt. It looked like the aftermath of an all-night, all-vegetable party.

I tried to re-establish order. I straighted up a few fallen plants. I pulled a few weeds, but eventually gave up that activity. Weeds and junk mail also thrive when you leave town. But weed pulling and wading through stacks of junk mail can sap your spirit. So I do both in small doses, counting on the surprises, such as discovering a ripe tomato in the weeds or coming upon a hand-written note among the computer-generated letters, to pull me through the drudgery.

Dealing with an unruly garden can be trying, but it has its rewards. One is the big basket of ripe tomatoes you carry indoors. The bodies of these tomatoes are far from perfect. Some have soft spots. Some have creases. Some have been nibbled on by rabbits, who apparently were not the least bit frightened of the inflatable, plastic snake I had placed in the garden to guard the plants against predators.

The soft spots and nibbled portions did not concern me. They could be cut away with a knife. Moreover, the latter were nature's testimony, in my view, of the superior flavor of the fruit.

I took this great, oozing tomato harvest inside, washed the fruit, sliced it and enjoyed it. A few slices of onion were sauteed in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Then 2 to 3 cups of cubed zucchini were added to the pan, as were three big, juicy tomatoes, sliced into pieces. The heat was turned up to high, and the mixture was boiled for several minutes, until it turned thick. Then the vegetables were salted and served warm.

The zucchini was slightly mushy, but there was a sweetness to the dish that was remarkable. It came from those vengeful but flavorful tomatoes.

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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