GARDEN TRUTHS

Tomato Tale

The taste is always best straight from the garden

Posted

“Only two things that money can't buy

That's true love & homegrown tomatoes”

  • Guy Clark

 

We invited friends over for dinner last summer, and since my tomatoes were producing like crazy, it made sense to include them in a salad. I didn’t realize the experience of eating a homegrown tomato for the first time would be on par with a spiritual epiphany for our friend.

She gushed about the taste, and after getting permission, proceeded to devour most of the Sungold tomatoes in the salad. She even quipped that her friends would attest to her dislike of tomatoes. As someone who has been growing tomatoes for decades, I couldn’t imagine missing out on that first bite of warm tomato straight off the vine each summer.

This experience reminded me of an attempt years ago to get a surly teenager to try a carrot just pulled out of the soil. You would have thought I was attempting to poison him! When he was finally cajoled into trying it, his eyes grew wide as his sweet tooth kicked in with the intense flavor never found in a weeks old pack of supermarket carrots.

I grew up surrounded by the cotton fields of West Texas, and my uncle was one of those cotton farmers. He always had a big garden that several families counted on to help feed the kids during lean times, so I grew up eating lots of fresh and home canned produce. If I’m honest, I will admit that I was probably just as surly about eating homegrown veggies. Give me Dairy Queen! Fast forward to today and you will find this septuagenarian out in the garden, creaky knees and all, keeping her sanity by growing real food, the food I turned up my nose to so many years ago. I know my mother is somewhere smiling and laughing at my change of heart.

Ethnobotanists study a region's plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of local culture and people. According to their research, the early precursors of tomatoes and peppers originated in the Andes and spread to Central/Latin America long before Columbus “discovered” America. “Tomato” comes from the Aztec word “tomatl,” as it had already been domesticated there by 700 A.D. The wonderful diversity of peppers can be traced back to the humble chile pequin, a perennial plant with small, intensely hot fruit. Through centuries of selective hybridization (not to be confused with genetic modification), tomatoes and peppers are now massive, finicky offspring that require constant human intervention to provide a crop.

Ah, but the reward!

That brings me to the reason for this article. I have other gardening friends, but they seem to be few and far between. Victory Gardens were intensely popular during both World Wars, and many people knew how to grow food. The same can no longer be said of our population. I understand there are many reasons for this sad situation. People are working multiple jobs to survive, or they don’t have a place to grow food. And, honestly, it is work, no matter the size of your plot. The slick garden magazines do a big disservice when they promote gardens that have a large crew of behind-the-scenes workers. You can’t be blamed for throwing up your hands in disgust when your one tomato plant is decimated by tomato hornworms or your squash wilts from squash vine borer.

Growing food in a high desert environment takes skill and perseverance and luck … think hailstorms. It has been successfully done, as many of your ancestors could attest. I’ve had to adapt my gardening techniques to deal with our poor soils, rainfall patterns, windy weather, and other restraints. I can be philosophical about a crop being lost because I understand the joys and frustration of dealing with nature. If all else fails, the local grocery store is not far away. However, I am a product of my Depression-era mother and I want to feel secure that food will be available. I see gardening as taking control of my life in a time when it is so easy to feel powerless.

Going back to those finicky offspring mentioned earlier, a basic understanding of their needs will go a long way toward a successful crop. Tomatoes and peppers are warm season annuals, so it’s too late to plant for the 2022 season. However, you can start planning for next year. I hope to pen future articles that will help readers interested in personal food security to successfully navigate their way toward a tasty reward of homegrown tomatoes.

You’re on your own for the true love part.

Betty Lambright has 40-plus years of experience in gardening and landscape design. She has a master’s degree in resource management and administration with an emphasis on water conservation. She lives in Silver City and can be reached at betty.lambright@gmail.com.