Homegrown Tomatoes

Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes
What would life be without homegrown tomatoes
There’s two things that money can’t buy
And that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes…

Back when I started the Hayward Area Farmer’s Market as my Senior Girl Scout Gold Award (in 2003, which is quite a few years ago now!), the season kicked off in mid-June. Invariably, right on that opening day, someone would wonder where the tomatoes were.

“No tomatoes yet?” they’d decry, sometimes with dejection and sometimes with disgust.

“Nope, not yet. They should be ready in late August.”

It was almost like this was an affront. How could you have a farmer’s market without tomatoes? As if tomatoes grown outside would simply produce all year long! Heavens, they were in the grocery store all the time!

Well, if you’ve grown your own tomatoes in Northern Wisconsin, then you know that it takes time, and that it’s worth the wait.

On our farm, we start our tomatoes from seed early in the spring, babying them along and keeping them safe from the frost. When the nights are finally staying warm enough for them to live full-time in the high tunnels (and this is often June in our area), we’ve already put in all the effort to turn rich compost and calcium into the soil and cover the beds with black plastic to warm the earth and create a barrier against blight.

Those tender little plants look quite perky in their new high tunnel home, but it takes a while for their roots to establish. Those long, hot July days spur them on to grow and grow and grow, as we hurriedly rig up the baling twine trellises to help keep the sprawling plants upright. Bumbling bees hum as they dutifully visit the yellow blossoms, which swell and turn into hard, green fruits.

And then we wait, and water, and tend, and wait. All of nature waits, including the voles, who some years have a nasty habit of knowing exactly when a tomato is turning a day or two before you do, devouring the bottom end. Drat!

The cherry tomatoes always come first, and they always turn into the biggest, bushiest plants that love to grab at my hair as I bend over to check on the fruits. Green, green, green, green—oh! Some of the heirloom types and cherry bombs have started ripening! Red, yellows, oranges flash from beneath the verdant leaves.

Of course, I have to taste one or two, and the flavors explode in my mouth as if the tomato has stored up all the glory of the summer sun and packed it into a bite-sized orb. I can barely contain the plethora of saliva that ensues. Tomato season has finally arrived.

But tomatoes are finnicky. If they don’t have just the right kinds of conditions or they are stunted early on because conditions wouldn’t allow transplanting in time, they button up and refuse to produce very many or any fruits. Before we used plastic mulch, blight infection from the soil would consume the plant faster than they could grow, destroying the possibility of a crop. And one year tomato bore horn worms attacked, chewing through the stems and devouring leaves.

It’s not easing growing tomatoes in the Northwoods! But that is part of why tomato season is so precious and worth celebrating. The picking festival on our farm will be now until the heavy frosts set in, when we’ll scavenge every orb and bring them into the basement, laying them out in shallow boxes to finish ripening, if they can. What cannot be redeemed on the warm basement floor happily feeds the pigs, who appreciate the diet diversity of tomato season too.

While the big slicers are still thinking green thoughts, I’m looking forward to a homegrown BLT—homegrown all the way, with our own lettuce from the aquaponics, bacon from our heritage Kunekune pigs, and tomatoes from the high tunnel on homemade bread, yum!

Do you have a favorite tomato story or memory? Find a way to share it this week or crack out your favorite tomato recipe. Caprese salad with fresh basil and mozzarella? Bruschetta on crusty bread with balsamic? Or maybe you just set out that bowl of cherry tomatoes like candy on the table as a summertime snack.

It will be a few more days before more cherry tomatoes ripen for me to harvest, but now I know that they are thinking ripening thoughts! Now, I just have to be sure to beat the voles to them. See you down on the farm sometime.