Last week, we ate our first tomato sandwiches of the summer. They were delicious.
For us, tomato growing begins in late January when we plant the first tiny tomato seeds. Or really, it begins in cold, dark December when we pore through seed catalogs, dreaming of warm sun and summer flavors. When we’re choosing varieties, flavor always comes first, but vigor and productivity are important, too; it doesn’t matter how good a tomato tastes if you never get to harvest it. This year, we chose to grow a few tried and true varieties like Sungold and Bolseno, several lovely heirlooms like Cherokee Purple and Brandywine, and a few new-to-us varieties like Sakura and Marbonne.
It’s important in our climate to get your tomatoes in as early as possible, in order to get a decent harvest before the real heat and humidity settle in. This requires a fair bit of trickery. To start, we put the trays of newly sown seeds into a germination chamber (basically a closet that we keep consistently warm and moist). The seeds germinate (fingers crossed), and we move the trays onto heat mats in our greenhouse, where—slowly, steadily—the seedlings start to grow. Then the routine settles in. Each cold night in February, we trudge out to the greenhouse to put our tomato babies to bed, covering them with row cover and turning on a heater to keep them from freezing. Every morning we head back out to uncover them, so they can bask in a few hours of sunlight. We water them daily, around noon, and occasionally whisper a few encouraging words.
By late March, the tomatoes are nearly a foot tall and are ready to be planted out. We take a moment to breathe in the familiar, almost beachy smell of their foliage, and then carefully transplant them into tidy rows in our hoop houses. It can be pretty wintry still in late March, so we anxiously watch the nighttime lows and adjust our social calendar in order to close the tomato houses at sundown and open them first thing in the morning. It’s just the beginning of spring, and yet the rush (really, the crush) of tomato season is already here.
For the next two months, we water them daily, in small doses. We tie two strings high above each tomato plant and begin the long, demanding work of pruning and trellising. Twice a week, we check each plant for unwanted shoots, prune them back to two leaders or growth points, and clip them to their strings. It is meticulous work, done on our hands and knees. Our fingers are stained with the sticky resin of the tomato plants. We’re in awe of how fast they grow. By late April, there are blossoms on the vines, followed by tiny green fruit. In early June, the plants tower over us as we prune, and we watch for the first ripening fruit. Once we begin picking, if all goes well, we won’t stop until tomato season ends, sometime in September.
In July, we’ll have so many tomatoes that we’ll be sick of them. By August, we’ll realize their days are numbered, and we’ll convince ourselves to love them again. We’ll freeze sauce and make confit for winter lasagnas and Bolognese. Is it worth all this trouble? Absolutely. Everyone loves tomatoes, and they only come once a year.
Follow Vera and Gordon's growing season—they'll be sharing their stories with us every Thursday here on marthastewart.com.