It’s autumn, the end of the tomato season. It’s been a good season, full of juicy, old fashioned flavours, and more.
I’ve been growing vegetables for many years: cukes, beans, capsicums. My favourites are tomatoes: cherry tomatoes, “ox hearts” and other medium size ones. Last year, my daughter gave me an enormous tomato, a real monster, from her neighbour, Joe’s, garden. It was gnarly, misshapen, like four or five smaller tomatoes were squeezed together until they grew as one. I sliced it into thick, dark red slabs, sprinkled with salt: wow!
I grew up in New Jersey, and despite what you’ve seen of New Jersey on television and films – its oil refineries and pizzerias – it is “The Garden State” and produces fantastic tomatoes. Joe’s monster was the closest to a real ‘Jersey beefsteak’ which I’d loved. I kept its seeds for this year’s garden.
In August I planted the seeds in old ice cream containers. After a week or so a thin pale green shoot was visible, the seed case containing the first two leaves stuck in the soil, like someone bending over to touch their toes. By lunchtime it was vertical, the two tiny leaves straight and angling towards the sun. For weeks I’d move them around inside, following the sunshine.
Melbourne Cup day: I hammered stakes in the ground and dug a hole at the base of each stake. The soil was soft, rich and black, the result of composting food scraps directly into the soil during the winter. I carefully lifted each seedling out of its container, keeping as much potting mix as possible around the roots. I planted them deep at the base of each stake, filling the holes so the soil reached the top leaves.
I spread mulch which nearly covered the seedlings, but gradually, as the ground warmed in spring, they grew and I needed to tie them to their stakes. Their stems thickened, and what had been one or two small vines soon were tangled, gangly plants.
I watered the plants from my rain water tanks, and fed them every two weeks. Flowers, clusters of small yellow petals, appeared; then, small green spheres emerged. They attracted birds, so I enclosed the plants in chicken wire, and enjoyed seeing frustrated birds strutting up and down, looking in at the plants but unable to peck at the young fruit.
Gradually the green tomatoes started to turn orange, then red. I popped one cherry tomato in my mouth, and it exploded, filling me with a rich, warm, acidic tomato flavour. It hinted at more to come.
Then the larger ones, including Joe’s monsters, began to ripen. I couldn’t wait to taste the first of Joe’s. I reach down to pluck one beauty from its vine. Instead of a firm tomato I felt a wet pulp. It, and others, were half eaten from underneath, out of my sight. Birds? They couldn’t get near. Maybe possums? One evening I saw the culprit- a mouse scurrying away. But the traps I placed amongst the plants did the trick, as did my terrier who reduced the mice population by at least two.
The rest have ripened in peace, and like last year, we’ve enjoyed the thick slices of ‘Joe’s monsters’ sprinkled with salt. One weighed in at over half a kilogram.
I’ve pruned the late flowers so that the plants can direct their energy to plumping up and ripening their last fruits, each morning new orangey red tomatoes visible amongst the leaves and vines. But the once lush plants have started to succumb to the cooler temperatures and earlier sunsets, their dark green leaves and stalks now dry and brown like weathered, gnarly arms.
Here and there I find a last gasp attempt at life- a small green ball on a plant defying the shorter days and cooler nights. But for the most part, the season is over. Soon I’ll have picked the last tomatoes, and patiently wait for next year to start all over.
Why do I bother?
Our lives, measured and governed by beeping alarms, vibrating phones and blinking electronic lights, are increasingly disconnected from nature’s rhythms. We can buy prepared food, regardless of its origins, and any vegetable, regardless of the season. We have gained as consumers, but we’ve also lost something.
When we grow tomatoes- or anything in our gardens- not only do we enjoy the fruits of our labours. We reconnect: to the rhythm of the seasons; to the earth we dig; to other animals. We measure time by the sun as we patiently wait for the seedlings we’ve nurtured.
Gardening puts ourselves back in nature’s hands- and it’s a nice place to be. (And the tomatoes are wonderful!)