The Birth, Life, and Death of the Perfect Summer Tomato

Here’s an ugly confession: I’m very bad with keeping up with our garden.  I always begin the summer filled with great expectations of abundant crop yields, but by the end of July find myself with a box of bolted lettuce, cilantro that has since gone to seed, various weeds, and an eternal, neverending supply of mint.

With this firmly in mind, this year I built a second square foot garden exclusively for tomatoes and peppers.  I ordered a variety of tomatoes, some of which were cherry tomatoes for a deck box, from chileplants.com, which were shipped to me in the first week of June.  Overall, I planted four tomato plants in the 4-foot square box – two San Marzano plants, one Ramapo Hybrid (which was a substitute for the very popular Rutgers VFA) and one Mortgage Lifter, which produces particularly impressive beefsteak specimens.

As it turns out, I’m glad that I only planted four plants.  Given the rain that we’ve had (so much so that I never had to break out the sprinklers this year), the tomato plants thrived, growing outward in all directions.  They were relatively quiet during the first half of the summer, but a few weeks ago I noticed clusters of San Marzanos, and a fairly plentiful supply of Ramapo and Mortgage Lifter types.  Then, about a week later, the tomato plants really start to peak, yielding a bounty of robust red fruit at an alarming rate.  This required much discipline to remind myself to check the garden every afternoon to make sure we didn’t lose any to gravity.

On Sunday, we picked a particularly ripe Ramapo and let it sit on our kitchen island until yesterday, when we finally cut into it.  It turned out to be the most perfect summer tomato we’ve ever had.

Here’s the thing about tomatoes – so long as the skin remains intact, without any bruising or blemishes, a tomato will continue to ripen on your kitchen counter for several days without rotting.  As each day passes, the tomato will continue to concentrate its flavor, becoming a pure distillation of summer, barely contained by the thin layer of protection provided by its skin.  If you can time it just right, if you can abstain from eating it until the very last moment, when the essence of the tomato threatens to burst through its fragile shell, you will have one of the most memorable tomato experiences of your lifetime.

We decided to turn this perfect summer tomato into a simple meal of tomato sandwiches.  The preparation is as easy as can be, just layer freshly sliced tomatoes onto bread that’s been spread with mayonnaise, and top with some sea salt, black pepper, and sliced onion.  The sweetness of an ultra-ripe tomato plays nicely with the sharpness and crunch of the raw onion, and the sea salt just brings the whole thing together.  The result is an instant summer memory, one so strong that it will sustain you even through the darkest, coldest days of winter.

September 4, 2009   Comments

And We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

I built my first garden box two years ago, which coincided with the onset of the first summer in our new home. Having settled in September, there was little that we could do with the property save for putting down a thin layer of mushroom soil and reseeding with better-than-contractor quality grass seed. When the warm weather finally returned, I was itching to test my newfound freedom to plant, grow, and harvest to my heart’s desire.

There was only one small problem – I had never tried my hand at gardening before. Having grown up in the inner city, where the only grass in sight was either contained in a small park, or growing between cracks in the sidewalk, I never had the opportunity to put spade to soil when I was young. When we were young, poor, married, and renting, I once planted one of those hydroponic basil plants from the grocery store in a pot on our front porch – and, to my surprise, it grew as high as my hip, bestowing upon us a wealth of pesto that summer. That gave me the reassurance that yes, I could grow things successfully, if only I had the space and resources.

So, when it came time for us to become older, slightly less poor, married homeowners, it was an imperative that I at least try my hand at gardening. I didn’t want to rip up large tracts of our backyard, though, which is already quite modest. Then, one day, I came across a copy of the book Square Foot Gardening, and it showed me the light.

Square Foot Gardening is a great solution when space is at a premium. Using inexpensive materials, you build a box, fill it with soil, then plant a different crop in each square foot. The first year I did this, I learned quite a few useful lessons about seed spacing, soil amendments, pest management, and growth rates. The thyme, sage, and chives that we planted two years ago have survived through two winters – so much so that the sage plant, once a resident of a single square foot of territory, now has grown to tower over five neighboring square feet. The chives, well-behaved at the beginning of spring, now bend under their own weight. These crops are performing too well for me to consider the risk of moving them, so this year I decided to build a second square foot garden, which, as a side benefit, gives me the opportunity to document the details here.

Ingredients

4 planks of cheap wood, 4 feet long
Screws
Weed blanket

Helpful: A drill

2 big bags of organic garden soil
1 bag of manure/humus (not hummus)
1 bale/bag of sphaghum peat moss
Maybe some more soil

I’ll begin with the raw materials. I started with four planks of wood, bought from the local big box hardware chain, which will run you about $5 per piece (you don’t need to get the good stuff). I chose 4 foot long pieces, which will yield a 16 square foot garden. Since I couldn’t remember where I put the screws that I had used two years ago, I had to pick up a box of deck screws for $7. The third and last piece of this puzzle is a weed blanket, which is a roll of dark fabric which will cost $15 to $25 depending on how much you buy.

Using three screws per corner, and preferably with the aid of a power drill fitted with a Phillips head screwdriver bit, join the four planks of wood together to form a square.

Take your square out to the site of your future garden (or, if it’s a nice day, just do your screwing, um, outside). Cut enough weed fabric to act as a “floor” for your square foot garden, and place the wooden frame over it. Alternatively, you can also put the frame down first, then tuck the weed blanket under the edges and corners. It’s okay if you need to cut more squares and overlap them. The purpose of the weed blanket is to serve as a barrier between your good soil and crops and the various grasses and weeds that are presently growing in your yard.

Now comes the fun part, adding the soil. Since the square foot garden is going to become a source of food, you want to select the best quality soil that’s available. I chose organic soil as my primary component, then added a bag of manure and a bag of sphagnum peat moss. The organic soil will serve as a home for your seeds and plants, but the manure will feed, fertilize and provide essential nitrogen to your growing plantlings, and the moss will help to retain moisture in your new garden so your fragile plants don’t dry out if you get a heat wave in the early days of your garden.

Empty all of the bags into your square foot garden frame, and use either your gloved hands or a spade to mix and fold until everything is evenly distributed. If you’re not planting or seeding immediately, this would be a good time to take a hose and spray down the box until the soil is saturated. If you’re a stickler for perfection, you can drill screws into your wooden box at one-foot intervals and tie twine or kitchen string to delineate each square foot plot.

Now comes the really fun part. Go to the nursery, buy some seeds and herb plants, and get down with your bad garden box building self. Take note of what you are planting – vegetables that need a lot of growing space, such as zucchini, won’t do well in a box environment. Pay close attention to seed spacing – you want to plant one (at most, two) seeds every inch in your chosen square foot plot. For my first square foot garden, I planted carrots, and did not heed the “one seed per hole” rule, and ended up with spindly carrots that looked like little orange mechanical pencil leads.

If this is your first garden box, here are some helpful hints. Plant things that you know that you’re going to welcome and use in the kitchen – so thyme, sage, basil, oregano, and rosemary are good “universal” herbs, and then branch out by choosing some seeds or plants that you’d like to try. Definitely include leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, which offer a sustainable crop of salad ingredients throughout the summer. Generally, it’s better just to buy herb plants at a nursery or garden center and replant them, since they’ve gotten a head start on growing in a greenhouse for a few weeks. The basil, especially, will be a source of pride for your green thumb, since the warm weather makes new growth on basil plants an almost daily occurrence.

And lastly, don’t ever, ever plant mint in your garden. Even though I thought I had pulled every inch of mint root from my first box, I’m still finding it cropping up in the strangest places, and nowhere near where I had initially planted it.

You can find Square Foot Gardening at Amazon, and if you pick up a copy using this link, a portion of the proceeds of your purchase will go to support The Best Food Blog Ever. Thanks!

June 11, 2009   Comments

Garden Update for June 2008

I had my first foray into home gardening about a year ago, which was great for herbs, but the leafy greens came to an untimely end.

This year, I got smart and we’ve had a fence around the garden from the beginning.  As a result, well…we’re going to be eating lettuce throughout the rest of the summer, as you can see.

The sage and thyme survived through last winter and got an early start on growing this season.  Both had grown enough to begin blooming, but, seeing as the bloom season seems to have passed, I’ve clipped both down considerably, leaving one or two stalks for the benefit of the bees.  Also making a reappearance was the oregano which, like mint, grows like a weed, but I’ve left it alone because it’s more versatile than mint (which was dug out of the garden and now rests peacefully in its own pot).

Leaving the sage, thyme, and oregano meant that I had about 90% of the square foot garden left to play in.  I set out to complete the herb set, so I picked up some basil and a tarragon plant (new for this year).  I haven’t used either of them in my cooking so far, because I want them to grow a little more before harvesting.  On a whim, I picked up a lemon verbena plant and potted it next to the garden, and the few weeks of warm weather have perked it up considerably.  I also added chives and scallions to one corner – the chives are thriving, and I have three good scallions.  Both, I believe, are perennial, so I may never have to buy chives from the store ever again.

As far as crops go, I learned my lesson from last year and decided not to plant carrots this time around.  Instead, I again planted lettuce and spinach (the lettuce took off, and the spinach has been hard to cultivate this year) and tried my hand at broccoli rabe.
In the cool days of late spring, the broccoli rabe wasn’t very active.  The next thing you know, it’s waist high and has already bloomed, which may or may not have affected my ability to eat it – I haven’t tried any of it yet.  It is tempting, though, to consider sauteing a mess of broccoli rabe in garlic and olive oil, roasting a pork shoulder in the oven until it’s falling apart, and slapping all of it onto rolls paired with some painfully sharp provolone.

I really enjoy the level of self sufficiency that we attain during the summer months with our garden.  At this point, food shopping consists only of picking up the meats that we need from the store, and everything else that I need to make a dish pretty much comes from what we grow.  If only our homeowners association would allow me to raise chickens and cattle, I would never have to go to the store at all.

June 24, 2008   Comments