by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, August 21, 1998

This is the time we've been waiting and working for all season. Our tomatoes are finally ready! Back in March, we sowed seeds in flats indoors. Now, after six months of tending, transplanting, pruning, mulching and staking, our plants are producing an abundance of delicious fruit. Fresh ripe tomatoes are one of summer's real treats. For the next month or two, we'll pick, eat and sell what we can of August and September's bounty and preserve the rest for our eating enjoyment throughout the year.

Tomatoes, like sweet corn and locally-grown fruit, are in greatest demand at the Farmers Market because those products are among the hardest to transport. The flavor and texture of most "long-distance" tomatoes makes them simply not worth eating. The average shipped-in tomato used in salads or sandwiches shares little more than its name with a local garden product. There are probably a few exceptions, but they most likely have been transported from Israel, Holland or British Columbia which consumes lots of fossil fuel and creates plenty of pollution. Because we choose to participate less in this long-distance food system, our work in growing our year's supply of tomatoes each season is even more valuable.

Each year, we grow six or eight varieties, just a few of the over 3,000 kinds of tomatoes which are listed in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog. Open-pollinated, heirloom varieties produce plants very much like their parents. Hybrid varieties have been developed with specific traits such as disease resistance, early ripening, or the sturdiness to withstand transcontinental shipping. We grow a few of each type and from the best fruit on the non-hybrid varieties we save seeds for planting the following season.

There are other characteristics to consider, also. Tomato plants have different growth habits. For example, determinate ones grow to a specific size and then ripen their fruit. Indeterminates (which we prefer), just keep on getting bigger, more like their perennial ancestors. Over the centuries, northern growers have worked to develop early tomatoes which require less heat to produce fruit. These northern varieties usually produce smaller tomatoes. We prefer Early Cascade in this category.

For our main crop, we grow the old reliable hybrid, Jet Star. It produces tasty and beautiful tomatoes which seem to be free of diseases and blemishes. For best fresh eating and the most "tomatoey" flavor, we grow a few heirloom varieties each year, as well. Prudens Purple and Brandywine (which produce huge but delicate fruits) are widely regarded as the best-tasting tomatoes. They've increased our admiration for the sturdiness and productivity of the hybrid plants, too.

Paste tomatoes have more solid flesh and less water. The heirloom Gilbertie is about our favorite for flavor, although it takes a long time to ripen. Paste tomatoes are perfect for sauces and dehydrating. For early and sweet cherry tomatoes orange-colored Sun Gold and red Sweet 100s are hard to beat.

I've found that staking tomatoes and cutting off vigorous suckers produces more harvestable fruit. We use poles that end up about six feet tall (after they're stuck into the Earth) and carefully tie the main stem to them as the plants grow. The suckers originate just where the leaf meets the main stem and may also bear fruit, usually too late in the season to ripen.

For the time from late October until next July or August when the new crop is ready, we depend on what we store in jars and the freezer. One of our favorite methods for preserving tomatoes is dehydration. We cut 1/4 inch slices and spread them on the rack of a five-tray dryer. This devise blows slightly warmed air through the racks to remove the water from the fruit. After eight-to-twelve hours, the slices are dry and ready to store in glass jars. These sweet slices with their concentrated tomato flavor are great as a snack or when cooked into many dishes. Suzanne is very good at putting whole tomatoes, sauces and salsa in the freezer for winter eating.

Growing a few tomato plants is a great way to begin to garden. For this season, however, if you haven't grown your own, enjoy the fresh local tomatoes now available at your nearest Farmers Market.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.