Debbie and I agree that summer truly begins with the first bite of a ripe, homegrown tomato -- a juicy, salty-sweet orb still warm from the vine and bursting with the promise of another long harvest. While that promise can be squelched by inhospitable weather, the dreaded blossom-end rot or the wilts (fusarium or verticillium), a good year can provide all the fresh tomatoes we crave plus enough to can or freeze for later.
A bad year results in low yield, mealy or spotty fruit, or nothing.
To help ensure the best season possible, this year we're doing what Craig Lehoullier, Raleigh's Tomato Man, recommends -- growing tomatoes in containers.
Lehoullier, who grows hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes in containers, sells seedlings at the State Farmers Market each spring. Start with the healthiest plants you can find, he says. Choose locally grown plants from a farmers market or local garden center that have already weathered a springtime of record highs and lows. They should be tough as nails if they've made it this far.
Use a potting mix that allows the roots to breathe. Lehoullier uses a soilless mix combined with cow manure. His recipe: Combine a 2.8 cubic foot bag of soilless mix (MetroMix, Fafard or Miracle-Gro) with a 40-pound bag of composted cow manure. Plant small, mini or dwarf varieties in well-draining 5-gallon pots or 5-gallon poly grow bags (available on the Internet).
Before reusing pots or grow bags, sterilize them with a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water). For larger varieties, use 10-gallon pots. The larger the pot and the more soil provided, the higher the yield per plant. Place pots in the sunniest location available. Move them around, if necessary, for maximum sun exposure.
To stake larger plants that stay staionary, hammer one or two plastic-coated metal stakes into the ground beside each container. For smaller pots, sink 3- to 4-foot stakes right in the pot. Vigorous growers might require two stakes. Use tomato cages if that's your preference, but stakes are easier to store from year to year.
As the plants grow, tie them loosely to the stakes with a soft material, such as strips of cloth, old pantyhose or jute twine. Consistent (not waterlogged) moisture is essential. Hand-watering provides the opportunity to troubleshoot problems as they appear. Water each morning until plants are growing rapidly, then add a late afternoon watering.
Adding a 3- to 6-inch layer of chemical-free grass clippings or composted leaves to the top of each pot helps retain moisture. With good soil and ample water and sun, tomatoes don't require much extra fertilizer. A slow-release, granular tomato food every couple of weeks should do. A few weeks after planting, add a small handful of granular lime to each pot to minimize blossom-end rot.
Note: Visit www.nctomatoman.topcities.com for Lehoullier's favorite heirloom varieties for the Southeast.
How many quests I have undertaken for the perfect tomato, and how often have I been disappointed. I seldom find tomatoes that live up to the ones that my father and I picked from his backyard garden on summer afternoons. We brushed the dust off their tender skin and ate them on the spot. Those tomatoes seemed to be the sun itself.
Since I'm not 10 years old and my father isn't standing beside me, perhaps that standard is too high for tomatoes today to meet. But if you follow Carol's advice, you have a fighting chance of growing your own perfect tomatoes.
The variety you plant and the growing method have much to do with flavor and texture. If you don't care for the classic taste of red tomatoes, try yellow or pink varieties, such as the popular German Johnson. Pink and yellow tomatoes (and the rare white) don't contain less acid, according to the University of Minnesota agricultural extension service. All tomatoes are high in acid. But those colors have higher sugar content, which masks the tart flavor with sweetness. If you like that lip-puckering flavor, as I do, search out green-when-ripe kinds, such as Green Zebra. Its lemon-yellow and green stripes are gorgeous in a salad.
Some 'mater fans believe that Brandywine, an heirloom variety that is becoming more common at farmers markets, is the perfect tomato, with its hefty size and balance of sweet and acid flavors. Many people prefer plum or Roma tomatoes for making sauces because they contain a lot of pulp. I say, use whatever tomatoes are field-grown and ripened, and are at their peak. The flavor is most important. Tomatoes with a more acid flavor make better sauces than other kinds, but remember to do what Italian and Southern cooks -- and my mother -- always did: add a pinch of sugar to the pot.
To quickly peel tomatoes for sauces or salsa, dip them, whole, in a large pot of boiling water for just 30 seconds or so, depending on the size of the tomato. Don't leave them in long enough to cook, just enough to loosen the skins. Remove and rinse with cold water, and the peels will slide right off.
There's a lot of truth to the old saying: "The hottest weather makes the sweetest fruit." The heat and sun of midsummer bring out the best flavor in tomatoes. A wet summer can produce tasteless tomatoes, but you can't do anything about Mother Nature.
The flavor of greenhouse tomatoes is improving. But they still can't match a July tomato. When the 'maters start coming in, I make the Italian salad Panzanella, using day-old Italian bread, fresh basil and olive oil. A classic BLT is one of my favorite ways to celebrate summer tomatoes. This appetizer variation replaces lettuce with something else green -- pesto. Use more if you like pesto a lot.
Reach Debbie Moose and Carol Stein at email@example.com.