Tomatoes

It is said that because the apple was unknown in the Middle East, there was a mistake in a translation and the real forbidden fruit of the bible was the tomato. This I can believe. Adam and Eve didn’t stand a chance when faced with a perfectly ripe tomato. God’s subsequent curse was not “Get out of paradise!”, it was “Thou shalt work!” and that is what we have been doing ever since, in the pursuit of the tomato.

To most people, December is the time of mistletoe and shopping for presents. To us farmers, the seed catalogs have arrived and it is the time of deciding. Seed saved from previous harvests must be evaluated and the choices must be made because tomato seeds must be in the dirt by January. As if the holidays are not enough to deal with.

Without a greenhouse, seed trays are set up in our kitchen and the soil is gently warmed over the pilot light on the stove. If all goes well, 7-10 days of watering and watching will reveal the sprouting seeds. Did I mention that the stove still has to function as a stove and the kitchen is still a place to prepare food? It could be worse I tell my husband and yes, that very night there is an ice storm and the power goes out. First batch of tomato sprouts die. We don’t panic, there is still time. We have a second chance to pick the varieties we discovered in a catalog we had overlooked. This is not a disaster, it is an opportunity.

The seed trays are restarted and resprouted and are tended lovingly. Having to stay inside, the risk of drying out is very real and so leaving them overnight is out of the question. They travel back and forth from city to farm, over to New Orleans to visit parents and out of town for a getaway weekend. Ernest and me and tomato seedlings make 252. By the end of February it is time to step up the little darlings into bigger pots. Oops, we are down to 202 vigorous plants. Since we had planned on only 70 plants, 4 varieties, we frantically prepare more bedding space and take daily soil temperature readings. That we have 200 plants and 7 varieties is a testament to our enthusiasm for tomatoes.

As the pace of spring preparation starts to really pick up, the tomatoes and I are at the farm full time. And of course during all this the winter crops are coming in and must be gotten to market. The tomatoes are old enough and large enough to be left on their own overnight in the barn. I go into town late Friday afternoon, market on Saturday morning and then back to the farm by 3pm. Not even 24 hours, everything will be fine. Right? Wrong. Temperatures dipped unexpectedly to 27 degrees. Seedlings in the barn don’t freeze but have come too close and cease to thrive. All 186 plants perish.

Now it is almost the middle of March and too late to start more seeds and so the frantic phone calls trying to locate already started heirlooms begin. Thank goodness for the internet. A trip up to Halletsville, down to Houston and back to the farm gathers up 200 plants, 6 varieties. Not our first or even second choices, but some we have read about and are curious to try. Not a disaster, an opportunity.

Finally the soil is warm enough and we get the plants in the ground, deeply mulched and loving it. Frost cover goes on and off, the new drip irrigation is working well and the plants shoot up two feet and bloom and set fruit. The days are starting to get longer and you can see the tomatoes flourishing. In early April you see the first red globe!

Wrong. April Fool! Cut worms have attacked and the fruit have been tricked into turning red as they rot from the inside out. War is declared and a second front is soon opened when the tomato hornworms attack. These 3 inch long guys are truly monstrous in their ability to strip a plant almost overnight. When caught, they will rear up and almost seem to try and swat back. We try and train the dogs to eat and hunt them, but have no luck. But this is not a disaster. It is an opportunity to patrol the plants and give them encouragement. Unlike my family, I believe they like it when I sing to them.

By mid May, the plants have created a jungle. Yes, we planted them too close together, we should have used two more 25 foot beds. But where were the peppers supposed to go? We are down to 92 plants between the bugs and the windstorms that have broken some of our sturdiest tomato cages. The little cherry tomatoes start to turn red and we watch the big green globes turn pale, then pink and then that perfect orange-red. When we pick the first ripe tomato and bite into its’ warm skin, juice running every which way, we realize that unlike Adam and Eve, we have our forbidden fruit and our paradise. And as for the curse of having to work? On our hard scrabble farm that’s not a disaster. It is a wonderful opportunity.

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