The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Camp Joy

I haven’t written enough here about my ever-evolving love and admiration for the tomato plant. As I learn more each year about them, their soil requirements, the care and tending of the plant, I’m struck by how resilient and beautiful they are. Each plant has its own leaf pattern, so that I am beginning to be able to tell the varieties apart by looking at the zigzag of dents on the leaves. Last year’s favorite, Chianti Rose, is a potato-leaf plant, with smooth-edged leaves like large green arrowheads. The Roma, on the other hand has a more complex, almost frilly pattern of dents that all together give the plant a lacy look in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes and I go way back. In fact, when I was quite young, I didn’t like them much; the acid juice was too tart for my taste. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then, when I was turning twelve, we moved to house on a farm whose farmer planted acres of beefsteak tomatoes. By this time of year, the plants were sprawling viny bushes of dark green leaves with tomatoes ripening under them. The tomatoes he grew were larger than my hand, firm and dark red, and they sliced into earthy, sweet, sour, slightly salty rounds that we ate with salt. I have a memory of sitting under the leaves on the tan-orange earth, cool in the heat of summer—but that may be a false memory. I would have been too big to do something like that, though I might have imagined what it would be like to hide there.

We picked a bushel to can each summer. The canning took days, at least in my memory. My mother and I would blanch the tomatoes, dipping them in boiling water briefly and pulling them out just as the skin began to split and curl back. We put them in a colander in the sink and, one by one, peeled the now loose skin from the soft tomato flesh. By the end of the session our hands would be burning from the acid juice, and I would swear I never wanted to see another tomato. I have not canned one since, in any case.

Now, with the greenhouse and a sunny spot on the deck, I’m growing tomatoes on my own terms. A few years ago, I would buy a few plants at a local greenhouse to plant in pots on the deck. When we built the greenhouse, though, I began to order tomato seeds in winter, plant around spring break and nurture the little plants till they could be planted in five-gallon buckets in the greenhouse in summer. I’ve learned a lot—temperature matters, for example, and lots of water. In the master gardener class last year, I learned that tomatoes cannot live on horse manure alone. And I’ve learned to appreciate the unusual variety of tomato plants.

This year, I’ve planted Pompeii Romas, Chianti Rose, Sungold cherry tomatoes, and an heirloom variety of cherry, Camp Joy. Besides that, I bought three of my favorite from two years ago, Black Krim, which has a fruit that looks nearly bruised, blackish red, with a soft sweet taste. A friend gave me some pear tomatoes, some Cherokee Purple, and Stupice.

After a few weeks of neglect, today I paid attention to the Camp Joy tomatoes growing on the deck. When I first transplanted them there, they were still in small pots and had exhausted the nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil. The leaves were yellowing and had a reddish rust color on them. I transplanted them into five-gallon pots, two or three to a pot, planting them in composted manure, potting soil (from last year) and a bit of fish bone meal and dolomite lime. After a week or two, they still looked pitiful, but there was green growth at the tops. Then the rain hit for a couple weeks, then the past few days of hot sun. By this weekend the entire planting was rich green and small green tomatoes clung to each one.

I’m thinking about all this, because, today, I took an hour or so to prune suckers from each of the tomatoes on the deck. I tied the tops to the stakes or cages, admiring how the leaves were green, even the lower ones that had been so pale only weeks before. It’s hard to trim the suckers, side shoots that look so promising and green, but suck nutrients away from the growing tomatoes themselves. Some of the suckers I cut looked like tiny tomato plants—beautiful frilly leaves, the promise of flowers—but I was ruthless. The sun warmed my arms and back as I worked. Small birds (and yellowjackets) swooped through the air. I could smell the lemon-earth smell of tomato where I had cut the tiny branches of the suckers. When I was done, the plants looked airy and the sun shone through the leaves, a bright green light.

Tomorrow, the greenhouse till, little by little, all the plants are tended and happy and can use what’s left of summer to grow enough tomatoes to tempt me to can again.

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