Jessie Raymond: Gardener turning over a new leaf
If you stopped by our house tomorrow — and please don’t, we’re still social distancing — what would you say about the hundreds of green tomatoes occupying every horizontal surface in our kitchen and dining room?
Probably “I was hoping to sit down, but I guess that won’t be possible.” The correct response, however, is “Wow, you didn’t give up.”
I really didn’t.
This is the first year I’ve maintained a vegetable garden for the entire season, and the tomatoes currently defining our decorating scheme confirm that I, a notorious garden quitter, have turned over a new leaf (ha).
How did I do it? Well, I tended the garden all summer, though “tended” is a euphemism that doesn’t convey how dirty and sweaty the work actually was; I’ve been cleaning up the garden this fall, something I’ve read about but have never attempted myself; and we had an early frost, which prompted me to launch into Operation Tomato Rescue a week ago Sunday, tripling my tomato harvest.
Overall, the garden did well. Granted, a woodchuck destroyed most of our pumpkins and cauliflower, and a vole ate a lot of corn on the cob right on the stalk. And don’t even get me started on the tomato hornworms.
But what I lost to pests and vermin I made up for with overplanting. My early-season enthusiasm and pathological fear of bare spots in the garden served me well.
Of all the crops, I’m most proud of my tomatoes — and my sustained dedication to them.
While managing the hornworm invasion gave me a case of low-grade willies every day for a few weeks, there was a single moment of horror that almost put me off growing tomatoes. Forever.
One day, I spotted a particularly large and juicy tomato hidden under foliage. It was so big it took two hands and a knife to wrestle it off the vine.
When I set it down on the grass, I noticed a haze of white webbing stretching across the top of it, partially obscuring a black hole next to the stem. Suspecting that some sort of caterpillar had burrowed in to make a cocoon, I sliced off an inch or so of the entire top, hoping to excise the culprit but save most of the fruit.
But I hadn’t gone far enough; the black hole went deeper. I braced the tomato with one hand and prepared to core out the blemish with the other.
Then I spotted movement.
Suddenly, a burly and agitated black spider — possibly growling, though I can’t be sure — erupted out of the tomato hole and raced across my hand and into the grass. I responded by running around the garden doing a protracted impression of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.
While it took me 24 hours, I did return to the garden.
And last week, when the frost warning came, I didn’t stay inside knitting; I went out and picked all the green tomatoes (avoiding any with white webbing across the stems, of course) and brought them in the house, because I heard that’s what you do. But then what?
I found a website that said, “To ripen green tomatoes, place several in a brown paper bag. Check them daily, removing any that show signs of rot, until they turn red.”
What a joke, and not just because I’d need 100 bags and an hour a day for ripeness monitoring.
For me, this advice translated as “Place several in a brown paper bag and never open the bag again, in case of spiders.” (Potential spiders are the reason I abandon everything from the last towel in the laundry hamper to a certain pair of tall leather boots I haven’t dared put on in three years.)
“Throw the bag away around New Year’s, or when rotten tomato slurry soaks through the bag, whichever comes first.”
Instead, I’ve just set the tomatoes out all over the place. And it seems to be working. Every few days, another 10 or 12 turn red, at which point I blanch them, peel them, chop them and bag them. The freezer is filling up, and we’re gradually reclaiming our living space.
This winter, when I open the bulging chest freezer and behold dozens of quarts of tomatoes, I won’t be thinking, “I probably should have cleaned out last year’s food before dumping all of those on top.”
I’ll be too busy beaming at the tomatoes and whispering, “For once, I didn’t give up.”
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