Several signs say tomato harvest is just about over


You know it is the end of the tomato season when you are picking tomatoes by flashlight.

You know it is the end of the tomato season when any sphere that shows the slightest hint of color now gets plucked off the plants.

You know it is the end of the tomato season when you have more tomatoes ripening in a brown paper bag than sitting on your supper table.

These signs of the shutdown of the season have been all around me, with new ones being added every day. I should know, for instance, that the demise of fresh tomatoes is nigh when Garrett County gets a foot of fresh snow, as it did last week. Or I should know that once the bear hunters start shooting, as they did recently in Western Maryland, it is time to head indoors.

Yet with gardeners, hope, illusion and obstinacy are our constant companions. Each trip into the garden to gather material for the "final harvest" meal becomes, with only the faintest encouragement, "the almost final" harvest meal.

On a recent evening when the temperature dipped into the 40s, the wind roared and schoolboys got in their last licks of football practice, I hustled to my plot in the community garden in Druid Hill Park.

I was racing daylight, picking anything close to edible. The forecast of an approaching cold front had sent me out to my garden plot to snag vegetables that could be saved from the jaws of the frost.

The same sense of doom had sent me out to the garden a few evenings earlier, then with a flashlight in hand to guide me in the darkness. The flashlight night had proved to be a false alarm. The frost had not hit; the vegetables had lived to hang on for another day.

But as the days grow shorter, the odds of survival do as well. Two days later, I was back in the garden, this time with a little more daylight to work with and with supper on my mind. I was toting a bucket and a large plastic bag.

Into the bucket went everything I had missed during my nocturnal scurrying. A couple of Bulgarian sweet peppers popped out from under some greenery. They were not red ripe, they were closer to purple, but the color codes change when old man winter is a-comin'. Into the bucket they went.

Basil plants, notorious cold-weather wimps, were looking shaky. I plucked the remaining basil leaves, tossed them in the bag and told myself they would make a small late-season pesto sauce.

It was getting dark very fast. A flock of birds cackled. Large trees swayed in the growing wind. Nature, it seemed, was sending out warning signals.

Once again I surveyed the tomato plants. Most of them looked brown and withered, yet here and there I spotted an orb of hope, a Cherokee Purple that might ripen, the bright yellow skin of a fat Mr. Stripey that, sadly, the birds had beaten me to and handfuls of cherry tomatoes.

These little tomatoes, which I barely bother with in high summer, now seemed like treasure. As the larger tomatoes turned misshapen and cat-faced, cherry tomatoes remained round, soft, red and ripe.

Standing over the kitchen sink at home, I examined my supplies and planned a meal. Most of the tomatoes would go in a paper bag with the top folded over. There, cloaked in darkness and enjoying the company of a ripe apple emitting beneficial ethylene gas, they would gradually approach fruition.

A couple of tomatoes, plucked and bagged a few days earlier, had softened sufficiently to become supper material. I sliced them and I tasted a small piece. It was not midsummer ecstasy. But, helped along with a sprinkle of sea salt and a shot of exceptional California olive oil (Stonehouse), the slices became a satisfying side dish of autumnal tomatoes.

The peppers were tossed on the grate of a hot barbecue grill. They were charred, then peeled, sliced and served with grilled onions and Italian sausages.

As I removed the sausages and onions from the grill and headed into the house from my backyard, a shower of leaves from the dogwood tree rained down. I took this as a reminder that the seasonal clock was ticking, that meals like this one, filled with garden-grown fare, were over - almost.

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