Tomatoes, Cheese, and Memories

It’s finally tomato season. This year, I’m growing a variety called Cherokee Purple, which become a deep rose color when ripe. They are glorious. Juicy and delicious. (They have also been resistant to pests and rot, unlike the Better Boys I grew for the past two summers.)

I’m eating a lot of tomato and cheese sandwiches. It’s one of my favorite ways to eat fresh tomatoes.

I usually only have the standard sandwich loaf for bread, but I think a sandwich like this probably needs some really good quality bread to be phenomenal. I love to use Cheddar cheese. And a grainy mustard preferably, though Dijon works in a pinch. And that’s it. Just layer a couple thick tomato slices and your cheese between slices of bread (one slice spread with mustard) and consume. Easy and delicious.

Every time I eat one of these sandwiches, I think of a camping trip I took in August 2006 with friends in England. We were staying at a campground in North Yorkshire, near Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby, etc. We had an RV and a tent set up on our site. I was staying in the tent. The RV belonged to the parents of a friend of my friends’, who was also with us. In fact, her parents were staying in it up until the day we arrived.

I remember it well. We showed up at the campsite, and immediately, her mum put on a kettle for tea. She made us sandwiches. She made me a cheese and tomato sandwich, and she kept calling me “Petal.”

Every time I eat a tomato and cheese sandwich, I can almost envision sitting in that little camper, drinking that cup of hot tea, and enjoying the mothering from this total stranger who called me “Petal” as she made me a sandwich.

Garden 2019

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Last summer, when I wrote The Accidental Gardener, I was in the middle of my second successful growing season. My stepdad helped me, insofar as choosing the plants or seeds and planting/sowing them. I took over from there.

I decided this year would be different. I would choose my own plants and seeds and plant everything myself. I even changed out what I was growing.

The past two seasons, I grew Better Boy tomatoes, which are incredibly productive and delicious. But after two seasons of Better Boy tomatoes up to my ears, I wanted to try something different. This year, I have one Cherokee Purple and one Husky Red Cherry – these I bought at Lowe’s (Bonnie Plants). I love to roast tomatoes and smaller ones are better for that. And I was attracted to the Cherokee Purple for the color.

I already had garlic sprouting. It didn’t grow last year for some reason, but it started shooting up through the soil in February. It wasn’t part of my garden plan for this year, but I worked around it.

The strawberries are starting to come back from previous years. And I dug up a couple of my raspberry bushes – three was two too many – and the one I kept is coming back. But I have to be vigilant. I have vines starting to pop up in the lawn and in various places in the garden where it’s not supposed to be. It’s really hard to control.

I bought the book Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting. I highly recommend it if you’re a gardener. I really helped me map out where to plant everything for the best possible results, including pest control. (In previous years, the raspberries in particular have been prone to pests. I’ve had Japanese beetle infestations, which I’m hoping to better mitigate this year.)

I wanted non-GMO seeds. And I wanted to support a local business. I ordered my seeds from Ohio Heirloom Seeds, which is based here in Columbus. To be honest, I picked out the carrots I’m growing based on the names – Cosmic Purple and Atomic Red. I am also growing Detroit Golden beets, Black-Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch lettuces, Cherry Belle radishes, and Bloomsdale Savoy spinach. I also picked up some sweet yellow onion bulbs from Walmart (also non-GMO).

I added more garden soil this year and mixed in some fertilizer. Believe me, the soil was plenty fertile the first year because the previous homeowners composted the heck out of it – it was still pretty nutrient-rich last year without having to add anything to it. But I figured it was probably due for fertilizer.

I also bought some straw to use as mulch. With the garden prepped and all my supplies purchased, I got to work.

Two weeks ago, I planted the cooler weather crops: lettuce, spinach, and radishes. They are all coming up, but the radishes in particular are doing well. I need to thin them out today, actually. But the greens are good to eat (though with a bit of bite to them, just like the radish itself), so nothing is going to be wasted.

Earlier this week, I planted everything else. I had to cover the tomatoes last night because the weather has been chilly and blustery (no frost, but wind chills close enough to freezing that it’s better to be safe than sorry).

I’ll have to plant more seeds throughout the season to keep things going, though some things, like the lettuce, don’t do so well in the heat of summer.

One of my co-workers recently said that gardening felt too much like work and he couldn’t understand the enjoyment I get out of it. It gives me great joy to see these plants emerge from the soil, knowing that I dropped a seed into the earth and nurtured it. And it’s even better once that plant is ready to harvest and eat. Yes, it is work. But there is reward. And that reward is being able to pull a jar of homemade tomato soup out of my freezer in the dead of winter to enjoy the taste of summertime.

 

The Accidental Gardener

We closed on our house two years ago today, and with the house came a decent-sized vegetable garden. It was all a bit intimidating. I had only been a homeowner once before and never got around to doing much in the way of gardening. Throughout Lance’s military career, we lived in a lot of rental homes. I had container plants – mostly flowers. Two years ago, before we moved, I grew grape tomatoes and mini eggplant in containers, but that was about it. I didn’t even have a lot of experience with houseplants.

Could I do this?

I mean, you can lay sod over a garden, I suppose, if you didn’t want to make that kind of commitment. However, our garden plot is enclosed by a wall made of brick and wrought-iron fencing (the previous homeowner was a professional landscaper). Removing it would be somewhat difficult and require a lot of work.

So, I was resigned to learn how to garden, even though I wasn’t sure how interested I was in it.

We moved in early in August, when it was too late to do anything about the garden. But it did give me some gifts in those first few months. The previous owners had neglected it for some time, and it was essentially a compost heap with various tomato plants and zucchini running amok. Some of the zucchini was monstrous, several weeks past the time it should have been picked. A lot of the tomatoes rotted on the vine, but I harvested what I could. We had purple and yellow onions. Sunflowers stood tall and cheerful along one side. We had a raspberry bush in one corner. I ended up with gourds as well, which decorated the fireplace in the fall. And then there was another plant in another corner that friends later identified as asparagus.

When the garden was done for the season, Lance pulled up the asparagus (or so he thought) and tilled everything over. The raspberry bush was severely pruned back, ready for next spring. During the colder months, my stepdad and I made plans for what we would plant and where.

April 2017: Ready to plant!

bare canvas

Spring came early the following year. I noticed a tall, thick asparagus shoot before we even planted anything. We yanked that out and planted strawberries, 12 tomato plants, carrots, two blueberry bushes, two more raspberry bushes, and onions. Given how fertile the soil was from all the compost the previous year, everything did just fine with very little help from me. I watered and weeded. I did my best to manage pests (damn Japanese beetles!).

The strawberry plants, still young, spread out but yielded little fruit. Asparagus continued to shoot up through the soil within the strawberry plants. The raspberry bushes filled out nicely but didn’t provide as many berries as I’d hoped.  I got a few blueberries, but those need a few years to really get going.

The tomatoes, though. Good God.

Remember I said 12 tomato plants? That’s about 10 too many. The plants grew as tall as me and merged into one giant plant.

Exhibit A:

killer tomatoes

I spent the summer making and freezing tomato soup and sauce. My stepdad canned some – a task, I admit, that I have no desire to undertake. I took endless boxes of tomatoes to work to give away. (One friend, who probably took more tomatoes than anyone, gave me some walleye that her husband caught. I consider that a fair trade.)

The onions did great and the carrots did, too. But 2017 will always be the year of the killer tomatoes.

It was a relief when the garden was done for the year.

The cold season came again, and it was time to plan this year’s garden. Obviously, we were keeping the strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. However, I insisted on zucchini and fewer tomato plants. I talked my stepdad down to six this year (still too many) because he wanted to do more canning. I wanted carrots and onions again, too.

Spring came late, and planting took place several weeks later than the year before. That didn’t matter. The soil is still fertile, and in early June, I had an abundance of strawberries. Then the strawberries stopped for several weeks, but they just started coming back again. The damn asparagus is still coming up, one spear at a time. The zucchini is out of control (and I bought three plants – the minimum amount). The raspberries did not do well and I think the blueberries are dead. And something keeps eating my tomatoes before I can pick them, so I don’t have as many as I should. I sprinkled animal repellent around the garden today, so let’s see if that helps.

The carrots have been in the ground much longer than they are supposed to be, but I picked one about a week ago – puny. I don’t have high hopes for them this year. The onions and garlic are doing great.

After two years of tending this garden, I’m learning a few things.

For starters, a weed-free garden is utterly impossible, which clashes with my perfectionist tendencies. I do the best I can, but the important thing is that I’m able to grow food. I have to let the idea of a perfect, pristine garden go. Besides, pulling weeds can be a great stress reliever. There is something deeply satisfying about digging in the soil with my CobraHead tool and ripping them out by the root.

Try a tomato other than Better Boy. Not that Better Boy isn’t delicious, but a little variety never killed anyone, and Better Boy has been the tomato of choice these past two years.

Allow more spacing between plants.

Plant more carrots.

There is a limit to how much zucchini I can tolerate. I have zucchini bread in the freezer and I’ve eaten more zoodles than I care to think about it. I also have a gallon-sized bag of diced zucchini in the freezer to throw into soups this winter. And I’ve given away more zucchini than I’ve actually used.

Finally, I love gardening. It’s a lot of hard work, yes, but it is so very rewarding to be able to go a few steps out your back door and pick things that you can eat. You know exactly where it came from and what’s been done (or not done) to it (all organic for me).

In the winter, you can pull some homemade sauce out of your freezer or add a jar of home-canned tomatoes to your chili, and it gives you that fresh summer taste to help make those cold, short days more bearable. Knowing that you grew that yourself – well, for me, at least, I get a true sense of accomplishment from that.

Plus, it’s fun to share your bounty with friends and family.

I take a lot of pride in what I’ve done in just a couple of years. I may have had my reservations at first about having this garden to care for, but now I’m so grateful for it. If we bought a house that didn’t already come with a garden, I’m not sure I’d be doing this. And I would never know what I was missing.