The Perfect Summer: A Tomato You Can Be Proud Of

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1994

The Perfect Summer: A Tomato You Can Be Proud Of

Secrets for sowing a prize winner
By Todd Balf

Some things can't help but grow well. The tomato, in my experience, isn't one of them. Tomatoes are notoriously frail, easy victims of disease or a cold snap. They crave daylong sun but wither in heat. Which is why butt-kicking tomatoes--as opposed to those bushels of undersize pretenders given away by "friendly" neighbors--rank as the true measure of a gardener's worth.

And what constitutes a butt kicker? Sheer size? Athletic, store-bought good looks? Taste? Early, first-on-your-block arrival? All of the above. But what makes a backyard gardener swoon is the mother producer, a bunch of plants so stocky, so fruitful, my neighbor Sam's. Last winter he ordered some new hybrid seedlings through a catalog. By midsummer he had a soaring ten-foot-high cherry tomato plant, a skyscraper that was no less impressive when it toppled over one night from its sheer heft and crashed through his screen door. The next day the plant was back in business, resurrected with the help of a scaffolding made from two-by-fours. A legend was born.

Pride prevented picking my neighbor's brain--but not that of Frieda Arkin, acclaimed home-vegetable guru and author of The Essential Kitchen Gardener (Henry Holt). Herewith, her formula for a plant full of tabloid-makers:

Though not a techie gardener at heart, Arkin recommends sending a soil sample to your state's agricultural extension service for a free test--what you want is slightly acidic dirt. (Just to be sure, Arkin annually heaps on several inches of topsoil and her own steaming, fresh-brewed compost.) Go with raised beds with maximum sun exposure, and cover them with clear plastic for a few days before planting to warm things up. The soil should be loamy, worm-filled, and French roast in color.

It's all in the timing--you have to be late enough to avoid a killing frost but sufficiently early to get fruit before summer's out. (In New England, where I live, Memorial Day weekend seems to work.) When you buy tomato stock at the local nursery, look for girth, not height. (Seeds take too long to germinate, so don't even bother.) As for variety, everyone has their favorite: Beefsteaks are the biggest, says Arkin, but Rutgers taste best. Choose a cloudy, cool day for planting (to minimize post-transplant trauma among seedlings) and throw in some marigolds to deter hornworms and maybe a big dead fish or banana peels for phosphorus' sake. Figure on a couple of feet between plants, and use tomato cages to support the little guys and to keep them from growing willy-nilly. Water deeply. Daily.

A sturdy prizewinning plant can devolve into a droopy, pest-infested cripple overnight. The major enemies: slugs and whiteflies. Arkin hunts both with Rambolike vigilance. She hand-picks the slugs, flicking them into a pail filled with a fatal water-and-detergent solution. She offs the whitefly colonies with a vacuum cleaner, shaking the plant to stir the swarm, then sucking up the buggers with the hose. Don't forget to mulch, prune side-suckers (new growth that robs energy from fruit), and drizzle around the bases with nitrogen-rich manure tea every couple of weeks. What's manure tea? Just what you think--dilute manure with water to a pale, runny consistency. Finally, add a word of encouragement now and again. Growing a good tomato, like most things, is about confidence. Willpower. A compelling argument. Yes, tomato plants can sense weakness. Believe me.

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