Garden is center of the life and trials of a tomato lover


Long-troubled by the belief that the grass is greener on the other side of the hill, I recently have begun believing that the tomatoes are redder in other people's gardens.

Here in late September, the prime bragging time of the grow-your-own tomato season, my plants have faded. Like a cheap horse that has run too fast early in the race, my tomato plants have folded up in the stretch.

My diminished tomato state is especially hard to cope with since earlier in the growing season, tomatoes were rolling out of my garden and I was enjoying juicy times.

Those were the days of tossed salads with tomatoes so sweet they made a salad taste like dessert. Those were the days snacks were made of sliced tomatoes, basil and olive oil on thick bread. These snacking sessions usually began with a few polite bites, and soon degenerated into all-you-can-eat feeding frenzies.

When you have luscious tomatoes coming out of your garden, you feel flush. I felt that way for a few weeks, but then things changed. My tomato plants took a dive. Their once green and limber leaves, turned brown, shriveled and ugly. I am not sure what happened. Somebody who seemed to know what he was talking about, said the problem was in the soil. It might have been tomato blight, it might have been tomato-eating mites, or maybe tomato-attacking spiders. To me, it looked like my tomatoes got the heartbreak of psoriasis.

As sorry-looking as my tomato plants were, I was not upset as long as they kept producing tomatoes. But shortly after the plants shriveled, the fruit production dropped. Earlier in the season, the tomatoes I picked from the garden could keep the family happy for a week. Now the fruits of my harvest could be wiped out by making a few sandwiches.

So lately I find myself casting longing looks at other people's gardens. The other night, for instance, I walked down an alley and peered into a stranger's backyard. I saw thriving tomato plants with firm-looking limbs, and big tomatoes. I coveted my neighbor's tomatoes.

I tried to console myself with the fact that while this stranger had plenty of tomatoes, they were green. Maybe an early frost will get them before they ripen, I told myself. These are the kind of ugly thoughts you get when your tomatoes shrivel.

Another day a neighbor wanted to show me the tomatoes he was growing in a barrel he had put on the third floor roof of his rowhouse. In my tomato-deprived condition, I did not trust myself to go up on a roof with a man who was bragging about his success. Who knows what I would do? What if we got in a spirited discussion over who can grow a better Beefsteak? And what if the rooftop gardener ended up slipping? I don't think a jury, at least one composed of tomato growers, would ever believe the fall of a gloating rooftop tomato gardener could be an accident.

I have come up with several coping strategies for living with my failing tomatoes.

One involves buying baskets of locally grown tomatoes from area farmers and mixing them up with the few remaining tomatoes I have plucked from my weakened plants.

When you mix the farmer-grown with your home-grown tomatoes, you are never quite sure which kind of tomato you are eating. That way when the tomatoes at supper are especially full of flavor and your wife asks you, "Are these from the garden?" you can say "Sure," and not necessarily be fibbing.

Another strategy of living in a diminished tomato state, is to eat more dishes made of the other vegetables grown in your garden.

I have recently, for instance, come up with about 4,000 things you can do with green peppers. My tomatoes may have withered, but the peppers are reproducing faster than rabbits.

Then there is the eggplant. In response to a recent column of mine on eggplant, Frieda Eisenberg of Baltimore sent me a recipe, called Poor Man's Caviar, for baked eggplant with bits of tomatoes and onion. Sophie Cavacos sent a recipe for a eggplant made with ground chuck, cinnamon, nutmeg and tomato sauce. And Mary and Jim Slacum of Cambridge sent me a recipe for roasted eggplant stuffed with tahini and pine nuts.

As these folk know, tomatoes may come and go, but there will always be eggplant.

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