You don't put anything in the ground until the leaves on the trees are as big as turkey feet."

I heard that folksy gardening tip in Charlotte, N.C., one beautiful Sunday morning. Southerners have such an expressive way of putting things. But it's a tip that comes too late for me.

I'm one of those people who heads straight to the garden shop as soon as the weather gets warm. Along with cucumber plants, yellow bell peppers and an assortment of herbs, I bought two tomato plants this year -- one heirloom and one 'Southern Belle.' But I decided to do more than plunk them down in the garden and hope for the best. This time I got serious and also bought mushroom compost, a bag of Sta-Green peat moss, and, for the first time in my life, those silver cone-shaped cages for my tomatoes.

I spent the next day in the garden, first edging off a little plot in my flower garden, then building up the soil with the compost and peat moss. I planted the tomatoes deep, topped them with the cages and stood back to admire my beautiful garden.

When my Uncle Earl, the master gardener, called the next morning, I couldn't wait to tell him about all my hard work. But, to my dismay, Uncle Earl, who lives near Lynchburg, Va., said April is a little early to plant tomatoes; he waits until mid-May, when the soil is warm enough and the overnight temperatures are consistently in the 60s.

Cold snaps can kill the tender plants, he said, so I should cover them at night if the temperature drops. Sure enough, the temperature dropped down here in North Carolina, and at least four times, I had to cover my plants with plastic kitchen trash bags. As of this reporting, my tomatoes are doing great. Thanks, Uncle Earl.

There is nothing like the smell and the taste of a tomato fresh from the vine. They are loaded with cancer-fighting substances, potassium, calcium, plus vitamins A and C. And not only are they good for you, they're easy to grow. If you don't have a lot of time or space, try the dwarf hanging varieties that you can grow right on the front porch.

I decided to try my hand at heirloom tomatoes after buying some from an organic stall at the farmers' market last summer. They grow in extraordinary colors -- deep purple, salmon, white, stripes, and literally burst with flavor. These tomatoes are old strains passed down from one generation to the next by gardeners who harvest their own seeds. I feel, in some small way, I am helping to keep this important tradition alive.

I hope to be enjoying the fruits of my labor shortly. Until then, imported San Marzano tomatoes work very well in my favorite tomato soup recipe.

Sandra Pinckney, a former Baltimore TV journalist, is host of Food Finds on the Food Network.

Tomato Soup

Serves 6

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 yellow onions (about 1 1/2 cups), chopped fine

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (or to taste)

28 ounces San Marzano canned tomatoes (drained)

2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)

4 cups low-sodium chicken stock (or water, if preferred)

1 tablespoon fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried

Heat butter over medium heat in a nonreactive pot until foaming but not browned. Add the onion, garlic, salt and pepper, stirring well to coat the onions with the butter and seasonings.

Cook gently, stirring often, for approximately 5 minutes, or until the onions are soft but before they begin to brown. Add the tomatoes and sugar and stir well.

Continue cooking about 5 minutes and then add the stock or water and basil. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, for 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Let sit about 10 minutes. Puree in a food processor or hand blender. Heat again and adjust seasonings -- salt, pepper, sugar.

Per serving: 175 calories, 5 grams protein, 10 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 17 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 495 milligrams sodium

I love to serve this soup with a dollop of creme fraiche:

Creme Fraiche

1 cup sour cream

1 cup heavy cream

Mix the cream and sour cream until well blended. Cover. Leave on the counter overnight, then refrigerate.

Per 1 tablespoon serving: 41 calories, 0 grams protein, 4 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, 0 grams fiber, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium

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