Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Love Apples

Still unable to bring myself to delve too deeply into the contents of the chill-inspiring orange folder, yesterday I did manage to extract the clever color-coded cycle calendar from the inside pocket, albeit with one eye closed, head turned away and wearing the same expression I use when sticking my hand in the garbage disposal to locate an errant cherry pit. The calendar, thoughtfully provided by the IVF coordinator, showed me in big blue letters that I am not to start anything new until the 11th (first up will be Lupron, 10 amps). Until then, I am at liberty to be as carefree as any 35-year-old, hormonally altered, pessimistic woman on the verge of her first IVF cycle can possibly be. In a celebratory mood over the week-and-a-half respite before needles, I knocked back a couple of glasses of Two Buck Chuck (the Shiraz--it was lovely) and had fabulous, unconcerned, non-procreation-related sex with my husband for the first time in ages. Jeebus Cripes, I had forgotten how relaxing it could be.

Inspired by Lawyer Jen's lovely Ode to Spring, and since I am always looking for good reasons to avoid the rest of the orange folder's many frightening forms, I thought I'd share one of my biggest passions with you; my spiritual retreat, my religion: heirloom tomatoes. I will not attempt to draw any barren/fruitful infertility/tomato parallels here because, though there are so many to draw, I really just don't want to think about infertility right at the moment. For once.

Tomatoes have always held great power over my psyche. As a child, when my peers were bribed to clean their rooms with M&M's or Nacho Cheese Doritos, I was coaxed with the promise of extra 'maters on my dinner salad. These were never home-grown, as our yard lacked any direct sunlight, but even the mealy, cold supermarket variety made my little heart sing with joy.

When J. & I started looking to buy a house in '99, a sunny garden was our one unassailable requirement: we were willing to compromise on layout, number of rooms, neighborhood and state of repair, but we would not do without a great space for our as-yet-imaginary tomatoes. I figured I'd save a good $300 a year just by growing my own, but mostly I wanted the satisfaction of watching them take root and flourish. I was wrong about the saving money part--containers, dirt and fertilizers are pricey--but not about the satisfaction.

Our small Oakland bungalow ended up having a perfect, if unconventional, tomato yard. Terraced into the gentle hillside in four substantial levels, there was ample sunshine but poor soil. So we improvised, using giant plastic tubs, Rubbermaid storage containers and, eventually, 30- and 55-gallon trash cans, all carefully perforated for drainage and placed for maximum sun exposure. That first summer, we had nine plants--Brandywine, Stupice, Sun Gold, Black Krim, Green Grape, Golden Persimmon, Costoluto Genovese, Green Zebra and Yellow Pear--and a harvest of gargantuan proportions.

Every warm day, from the moment we put the first plants in soil, I would come home from work, take off my shoes, slip on my flip-flops and head to the yard to commune with the seedlings. Just sitting there, or crouching below them, taking them in. Every day, there would be something new to marvel at: a two-inch overnight growth spurt, the unfurling of leaves, the first flower buds, and then the miniscule green fruits nestled in their tiny green stem-hats. Every year, I've parked myself next to the plants of an evening, willing them to grow, marvelling at their vigor, monitoring every spot and aphid, and being oddly moved by them. They make me feel both grateful and humble.

When the very first one got around to ripening--a wee Sun Gold, early June 2000--we cut it and fed the halves to each other like cake at a wedding. It was sweet and tart and perfect. By August, we had more tomatoes than any two people and their five closest neighbors could eat. Heedless of excess and mouth sores, the next year we upped our haul to twelve plants, supplementing our internet supply with several new varieties from a local nursery. The year after that, we added six more garbage cans and made a special trip to a renowned Pasadena nursery--carrying more than three hundred varieties--and carefully drove the five hours back home with the seedlings lounging on our back seat. The year after that, though J. protested vigorously all winter that we should moderate our habits, he quickly fell victim to the siren's call (Thai Pink, she whispered, and Juliet and Dona). We ended up with twenty-two.

Two years ago, we learned the joys of Aunt Ruby's German Green--a big, full-flavored, juicy and beautiful beefsteak that ripens to the color of a pippin apple, shot through with gold and pink on the blossom end--but only after early blight decimated our first planting and a freak May hailstorm doomed the second. It was a disappointing yield, since our third round didn't get established till June, but I was still out there every day, basking in the tomato love.

Last year, we tried to curb our tomato gluttony as we were planning to be gone from the Fourth of July till mid-August--tomato primetime--and limited ourselves to nineteen plants. As we were driving through Oregon and Washington, Canada and Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, I missed nothing from home except my tomatoes. I worried about them obsessively--what if the automatic drip system broke, or the timer battery died?--and had convinced myself that there would be nothing left but sere yellow husks flopping weakly in bins of dust. I had tomato nightmares and even woke up crying once.

When we were driving lazily through the streets of Salt Lake City, still four days out from our planned return, I realized that I was truly agitated. Partly it was due to my unwelcome menstrual guest, proof of another failed month, but it dawned on me that a large measure of my angst was stemming (apologies; couldn't resist) from the tomato-death fears. Not wanting to admit this, I asked J. what he wanted to do. Stay around Salt Lake City for couple of nights, as planned? Or maybe, just maybe, start heading West as fast as our Accord could take us? He took one look at my pleading face and headed directly for I-80. We were home the next evening.

When we arrived, before unloading the car or even remembering to turn off the burglar alarm, I rushed through the house, tore open the back door and stood in amazement. There were two terraces of unusual trees--eight feet high, deep green--accessorized with what looked to be an odd assortment of colorful christmas tree ornaments. I gawped and sputtered and started to cackle with glee: It was a tomato forest.

The cursory harvest from that first evening--it was pitch dark not half an hour after we arrived--was enough to cover every available surface in our kitchen. There were a dozen Old Germans, each three pounds and the size of a Nerf ball. Czech's Excellent Yellows were dripping from the counters. Sun Golds were spilling forth in nubby orange waves. A hundred Stupices vied for space with twenty Pink Odorikos on our dining table. Mule Teams and Black Princes jousted for room on top of the dryer.

Best tomato harvest ever. And we're just about ready to start again: this year's first seedlings will arrive next week.

(p.s., I'll be down visiting my father for a few days. Should be back posting Monday or Tuesday. If you are feeling the tomato passion, I highly recommend TomatoFest. Aside from the hundreds of heirloom seed varieties on sale, they organize a very swanky annual tomato love-in in ritzy Carmel Valley, complete with women in garden party attire and all the food and drink you can cram in your gullet. Avoid the avocado-tomato sorbet with parmesan chip, however, if you value your tastebuds.) Posted by Hello


Anonymous Sarita said...

Oooh, I love tomatoes too, but I've never had good luck with container gardening. How did you do it?

11:34 AM  
Blogger Galloping Cats said...

Yummmm. I love tomatoes. I'm like Forrest Gump: tomato salad, tomato sauce, tomato soup, tomato sandwich, etc., etc.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Lori said...

Those are some fine looking tomatoes you got there! Thanks for sharing your passion. I never really thought much about growing heirlooms but now you've got me thinking I might try them this year.

12:46 PM  
Blogger steph said...

I, too, use containers- between the Florida sand and the nematodes, sticking them in the ground is certain death. I try to start from seed, but I'm a procrastinator, so it never quite works out... but it's tomato time here, too. I am so excited (just lost the Matt's Wild Cherry to my own negligence. It never produced a huge amount, but great little pea sized treats for when I walked by).

12:55 PM  
Blogger Wavery said...

You have made me ache for a garden of my own. Aching!

1:57 PM  
Blogger Emma Jane said...

You've made me ache for a never-quite-sunny-enough and currently-obliterated-by-construction-machinery patch of dirt far far away... where tomato plants can't even be put out until June, and where we've never gotten more than about 15 pounds in a season.

And oh, the peace that comes from meditations on the daily changes in the garden. Back in grad school, my garden was the only place where I ever felt truly relaxed. Ever.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous thisgirl said...

1. The tomatoes look delicious. My g-ma used to gow tomatoes and whenever I see them it makes me think of her.

2. Non-procreational sex? Huh? tell me more....what is it?

3:45 PM  
Anonymous thisgirl said...

typo.....gow = grow. Sorry.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous soxy said...

We share a couple of the same passions: gardening and bird-watching! I actually just got my heirloom yellow pear tomato seeds from burpee. Have you ever started them from seed? I figured it's worth a try. I love starting things from seed. As for the birds, they are doing great...as long as hubby keeps shooting the squirrels out of my feeders, they are happy.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Day said...

Mmmmmm- I am a tomato-holic, and your post has me aching for sunshine and warm dirt and flip-flops.
And that pic is fabulous (kind of a tomato celebration).

5:03 PM  
Blogger Soper said...

OK, you have me beat.

My Eva Purple Ball and Black Princes just will not grow (too humid) but I have great luck with the Cherokee Purple and Mule Team.

This year I am trying "Stone" (red) and one called "Principe Borghese" (paste), along with Earl of Edgecombe (yellow), everyone's favorite Green Zebra, and the ever abundant Riesenstraube (Cherry).

I am also growing salsify, which looks like a black carrot but is suprisingly good.

We will have to have an online tomato judging contest come july.

8:08 PM  
Blogger amyesq said...

I love your tomato stories! I am feeling very inspired and excited for summer now. I usually only grow 3-4 varieties (brandywine, Roma, other random heirloom and yellow pear) but T. has heard of a new extra lycopene hybrid cherry this year. I will probably order from Cook's Garden. In fact, I had better get on the ball with that! Here in So. Cal we have no worries about frost. Please keep us updated on your tomato adventures. Oh, and however did you keep the hornworms away during your trip? If I am not out there every day, they grow as big as snakes!

8:37 PM  
Blogger HomeFireBlue said...

Ohhh, yes! Another Tomatoe Freak here. My mum always managed to coax a few plants up wherever we lived and I've grown phobic of eating them chilled. It's off the windowsill or right off the plant for me.

Afraid I've never tried any heirlooms. I'm too much of a tightwad to spend any money on anything more than the seeds. I make compost from kitchen scraps, ashes from the wood stove, and any poo offerings from our one morose pony.

I've been very pleased with the yields here. I can all the excess and make spagetti sauce and so far I've not run out.

Amyesq, we have HUGE hornworms as well! I just pick them off by hand every evening (yuck!). My chickens follow me along the fence fighting each other for the next fat green bastard. Man, I hate those things! (the worms, not my chickens, lol)


9:04 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

Ooooh...I think I finally have the inspiration needed to actually get a garden in the ground this year. Those maters look scrumptious.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Lori said...

Yummy ... I'm pretty obsessed with tomatos also -- we just got our early girls in, last year the stupice and purple cherakees turned out wonderful -- these I planted as seedlings (is that the right word) rather than growing than from seed -- the ones that grew from seeds didn't do as well.
I'm scared that we're going to get another frost day though -- we live in the only place in L.A. that has frost.
we had to pick the horn worms off by hand Amyesq -- I don't know of any other way. Blue -- that's a good diea about the chickens, I wish we could let our chickens out to eat them, but if we let them out to eat them, but we can never get them back in the coop and then the coyotes get them!

11:41 AM  
Blogger amyesq said...

Blue and Lori - blech on picking them off by hand. At least I can usually get my Dh to do that if they get too big. I wish I had some chickens to feed them to.

1:11 PM  
Blogger chris said...

I love this post. You're making me miss California. And I'm not really that crazy about tomatoes.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Cricket said...

What a beautiful picture! I may paint it.

I love hearing all yout tomato tales. I share your love of horticulture, but I go for flowers: all sizes, heights, colors, blooming seasons so that something is always going.

Please keep us updated on your tomato selections and crop this year.

And make me a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, please! (That's going too far, I know.)

7:41 PM  
Blogger Pamplemousse said...

Hoo boy, Bugs! I just want to throw myself on that pic and make me some pasta sauce. Yum yum! I am so jealous of that California sunshine.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Millie said...

Man, those are some amazing tomatoes. I think this is my first post here but now I've got to go back and read everything else. I wanna try some heirlooms this year-last year I just grew my neighbor's leftovers. But they were yummy.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Catrinel Pauna said...

I found your blog page while i was searching for a Christmas Tree photo. You have great pics and I was so impressed by Archimedes who seems to have a lot of personality :)

3:33 AM  

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