Tomatoes: bright start, dull finish


IT WAS A ROTTEN year for home-grown tomatoes. It started off with great promise, lots of bright-red, flavorful fruit. But that turned out to be a big tease.

Instead of being a summer full of juicy pleasure, this tomato season was a spurt of initial enjoyment followed by weeks of torment.

First, there was the drought, then heavy rains in August, then hurricane Floyd this month. After the great start, the yield dropped off. The flavor took a dive. The tomatoes turned mushy.

That is what happened to my garden, but I wasn't alone. Recently, when I talked to fellow growers around the state, they too were singing the home-grown tomato blues.

"The tomato season was like a cheap suit. It looked great at first, but quickly fell apart," said Joe Trabert, whose wife, Sherry, is a master gardener. The couple once had high hopes for the large garden behind their Northeast Baltimore home. In June, their tomato plants looked like prize winners. By August, they were disappointments.

In Towson, it was a similar story. In July, Steven P. Alpern was telling me about the delectable fruit coming off the plants in his back yard. By the end of summer, he had revised his view.

"The first three weeks were wonderful," he said of the days of tomato sandwiches, made with sourdough bread, a thick slice of juicy tomato, a dab of mayonnaise and a little basil. "But then all the rains came all at once."

In Centreville on the Eastern Shore, John "Farmer John" Selby said that if this were a normal year he would have harvested fruit all summer long from seven different plantings scattered over 14 acres. But this year, after the third planting, the crop, which he sells to restaurants and roadside stands, turned from sweet to so-so.

Selby, who is 82 and an avid baseball fan, said that in all his years of growing tomatoes he has seen only one other summer, in 1934, that paralleled this year's weather pattern.

"That was back in the days of the Dust Bowl," he recalled. "I was a senior in high school and was pitching for the Delmar [Del.] high school team against Bridgeville [Del.]. I was pitching pretty well as long as the dust was in the air. But when the dust died down and the sun came out, they started to hit me. I struck out 21 and lost 1-0."

Later that summer, after weeks of drought, the rains came in buckets, just like this year, he said.

Finally, I got an expert -- Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist for the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service Home and Garden Information Center -- to say that this year's crop was stinky.

Those were not his exact words. He actually said, "Home-garden production was down."

He listed several factors for the decline, including the drought; the high incidence of blossom drop; the surprise arrival of the tomato pinworm; a plague of spider mites; the siege of the hornworm; the return, in spades, of blossom-end rot, followed by the onslaught of rains so heavy they split tomato skins.

Traunfeld also is a backyard gardener. And like other tomato growers I spoke with, he wasn't about to let this year's disappointments dampen his enthusiasm for next year's crop of home-grown tomatoes.

"Every year is an adventure," he said.

Pub Date: 09/29/99

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