Tomato Time

With gardens large and small, Marylanders make room for the many varieties of summer's 'love apple'

Backyard Harvest

August 13, 2008

Sitting in her Sparks kitchen on a broiling Maryland morning, Claire Jones was encircled by tomatoes. In front of her was a dish of scalloped tomatoes, a fragrant golden gratin, a mixture of sliced potatoes, herbs, cheese and sliced tomatoes. Behind her, in a basket on a kitchen counter, rested a few Big Boys and Snow Whites, some of the first homegrown tomatoes of the season. Outside her kitchen window, visible from the kitchen table, were rows of tomato plants, heavy with fruit and bearing colorful names like Black Brandywine, Howard German, Speckled Roman, Green Sausage, Box Car Willie and Federle.

The deluge of ripe tomatoes was about to hit. This occurrence, which Jones likened to a summer thunderstorm, was behind schedule this year. When it comes, she said, the work of sauce making will begin. But as a veteran gardener and a professional landscape designer, she knows that part of the tomato-growing experience is that you work on nature's clock. She also knows the wait is well worth it.

As she talked about the pleasures of harvesting homegrown tomatoes, her eyes widened, her voice rose, her hands gestured. The flavor of these tomatoes is blissful, she says, and varied. She mentioned the distinct sweet notes of the Brandywine, the generous goodness of Box Car Willie and the geometrical joy of growing odd-shaped tomatoes like the Federle. Jones even has good words to say about the mundane Early Girl. "It is no great shakes" for flavor, she says. "But it shows up early."

Jones is a tomato lover, one of the breed of gardeners and cooks who grow and cook their own. Recently, I spoke with a handful of these fans of the "love apple."

The size and scope of their gardening efforts varied. Jones has about 30 plants behind her home. Michelle Mayer Motsko has 120 plants growing in a well-fenced garden behind her family home on the grounds of the McDonogh School. James Ralph Cook grew about 200 plants in the greenhouse attached to his eastern Baltimore County home. He planted about 50 of them behind his house and gave the rest away.

Karen Howard does not have much room, so she grows half a dozen tomatoes in pots behind her Pasadena townhouse. Another townhouse dweller, Amanda Lauer, grows two plants, a Stupice and an Amish Paste, in between flowers in her Ellicott City garden.

Uniting these growers is a passion for what their plants produce. "I grow my tomatoes in pots because that way I know they are organic," said Howard, who sent along a recipe for Corn-and-Tomato Linguine.

Motsko was so determined that her tomatoes end up as salsa and sauce for her family rather than as supper for herds of roaming deer that she paid to have a 7-foot-tall metal fence erected around her garden, then had to supplement the deer fence with a wrapping of "rabbit wire" at the bottom to keep out groundhogs.

Cook faced a common problem - impatience with a slow-ripening crop. He solved it with a time-tested solution. He went on vacation. Sure enough, when he and his wife, Wilma, returned to their Joppa home from a visit to Williamsburg, Va., he spied some ripe Brandywine tomatoes in his garden. As is his habit, Cook sliced up one of his prized garden-grown tomatoes and carried it to a nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant, where he enjoyed it with a breakfast of eggs, gravy and bacon.

Nationally, the ranks of tomato lovers are growing, said Amy Goldman, author of the recently released book The Heirloom Tomato, chair of the board of Seed Savers Exchange and a gardener who told me she grows 250 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

"In general, there is a surge of interest in having a vegetable garden," Goldman said. "Sales of seeds have gone up by some accounts by as much as 20 to 40 percent."

It seems, she said, that "hard economic times call for a soft tomato."

Goldman, who has written two other books - The Compleat Squash and Melons for the Passionate Grower - is, by her own admission, "a gardening nerd." She is an advocate for heirloom tomatoes, which yield seeds that can be saved. Unlike hybrid tomatoes, which are bred for commercial growers and reduce biodiversity, heirlooms are, Goldman said, "hand-me-down tomatoes."

She raises her tomatoes from seed, noting that the "plump ... hairy-looking seeds" are the most promising. In the spring, she warms trays of tomato seedlings on heated mats. She plants her tomatoes 5 feet apart in a row and leaves 7 feet in between rows. Heirloom tomatoes need air, she said.

She prunes her plants with scissors, a trim so severe she has earned the nickname "Amy Scissorhands." A plant that has a bonsailike trim will be a healthier, more productive plant, she said.

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