A Stash of Perfection
With a frost warning up, last week I picked all the tomatoes left on the vines. And I do mean vines — these tomatoes were among the most vigorous, the most aggressive I’ve ever grown. I planted them, probably ten or twelve plants, in early June, as usual. I had dressed the garden with a fresh layer of compost this spring. I make my own compost but never enough to completely cover the garden so every few years, I take my little pickup down to Agway and have them fill the bed with a yard or so of compost. They store this black magic in a big pile in their yard, next to the bark mulch and the loam. They say it is organic. I hope so.
This year, I forked it off the truck directly onto the garden. This made for a good soft cover of compost. I didn’t even till it in. It seemed good enough as is. And so I tucked the tomato plants into this rich bed, pressed them in as I always do, making small “wells” around the small green fledglings so that water will catch more easily. Nothing new there. I don’t fertilize, only some extra compost from my only bin. And there it was. I will say that these were hearty little seedlings, which is always a boost. Once they got a nice head start, I put tomato cages around them. My father always tied the plants to wooden stakes with strips of old sheets. I did that for a few years but then got into the habit of using these cages, which I usually buy at Agway or a similar garden place. They aren’t ideal but they do tend to keep the plants from lying on the ground — which in turn keeps the fruit from rotting.
Living up here on the top of this hill and in the northern part of New England, I can’t say I’ve ever had tomatoes such as my father grew in New Jersey (the Garden State, in case any of you have forgotten, never knew or can’t imagine). For that matter, the tomatoes I grew when living down in the Connecticut River Valley were pretty close but once I moved further north, I had to accept a lesser crop, sometimes still on the green side once the frost came. I became expert at ripening green tomatoes after the season had ended, setting them in the basement wrapped in newspaper or on the porch in brown paper bags.
But this year, this year, the tomatoes began to ripen in early August, very early. Odd, because so many of my friends complained of a bad year for tomatoes, which was predictable, given all the cold and the rain we experienced most of the summer. For myself, I was away a lot and when home, it seemed always to be raining. At one point, the garden looked a lot like a small jungle, no exaggeration.
Nevertheless, my plants seemed to be on automatic pilot, just loving whatever the daylight brought and maybe the moonlight too. Whatever it was that was happening, the plants rose out of the ground with alarming strength, elbowing their cages aside and, mostly, breaking loose from them, leaving the metal circles bent onto the ground while the tomato plant muscled its way out of bondage with clear intent. Soon, the little melon-green globes began to turn red, the red of perfection, classroom examples of roundness and ripeness. Each tomato, while on the small side, was not only perfectly round, but also uniformly ripe. No blemishes, no blight, no mottled or varicose skin, just smooth red fruits, so uniform they seemed to have been pumped out of a mold. Best of all, these were sweet treats, sweet as dessert. I often stood out in the garden and ate right them like apples right from the vine, the tomatoes still warm from the sun.
I felt blessed, like a person on whom a great fortune had been bestowed. I truly had done nothing to help in this or achieve this amazing result. This beauty and abundance from an off year just seemed to happen, even aside from my neglect.
Abundance — key word. When the frost warning came, I went out with my bushel and picked, one bushel and then another. Many of the best tomatoes were hidden under foliage and wrapped around the twisted cages, completely destroyed by this protean crop. I write this in gratitude: in all my years of gardening, I’ve never experienced such a bounty. I lugged the bushels into the kitchen and started the work of putting the harvest by in Mason jars. The kitchen filled with the fragrance of the harvest, a deep tomato-ness. Working to the rhythm of the jars tapping inside the boiling kettle, I thought about the coming winter, so close now. I’ve heard it will be a hard winter, on many levels. If so, a stash of perfection might come in handy.