Archive for Wednesday, June 26, 1996

TOMATO PASSION SPURS EXTREMES

June 26, 1996

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If I had to catalog my excesses, there's no doubt that my vegetable garden would require its own volume. Within that, however, would be a chapter devoted entirely to overindulgences I have committed in the name of the tomato.

This year's tomato plant count stands at a qualified 29 -- that is, not including half a dozen volunteers that have escaped the weed hoe and again as many tomatillos, the husk tomatoes used in salsa.

What makes this truly ironic is that tomatoes are a pleasure I came to late in life. As a child I let speculation that I had food allergies go unchallenged because it was getting me out of eating tomatoes, the insides of which looked so slimy, seedy and, well, unappealing.

I'm not sure that I actually tasted a home-grown tomato until I was an adult and when I did, it not only changed my perspective on the fruit but it also ruined me for any tomato but the garden variety.

Even if I couldn't eat them, I'd be growing tomatoes, for no other reason than to brush the leaves occasionally to release their trademark scent. It is the fragrance of the garden, of proliferation. In late winter, nothing works like the scent of a tomato seedling to transport my imagination into the seasons ahead. Under the summer heat, it is an almost primal aroma.

My vegetable garden isn't complete without a full complement of tomato varieties that begins with Celebrity, Early Girl, Better Boy, OG50, Roma and Sweet 100. This is the first year in several that we don't have Rutgers, a reliable, full-flavored producer for this climate, growing in the garden.

I pondered my infatuation with the tomato Saturday afternoon, kneeling in the sun, as my favorite teen-ager and I pounded stakes and installed this year's additions to our tomato cage collection. We ran short of cages not only because we have so many plants -- the previous record was a piddling 22, but also because I commandeered some of our standing supply as makeshift bean towers.

That new batch of cages was well overdue and I had trouble stuffing a couple of sprawling tomato plants into their new confines. I had been procrastinating because the task of building tomato cages consumes an afternoon, if it's done right.

If you are among the easy marks who have invested in those cone-shaped wire tomato supports or a roll of what passes for tomato cage fencing in garden centers, I'm sorry. In a past life, I made that mistake as well.

What I learned is that neither is tall enough or substantial enough to stand up to the wind in a Kansas thunderstorm or the weight of an indeterminant tomato plant in all its glory. There is but one material from which to build tomato cages and that is reinforcing mesh, which is sold at lumberyards for reinforcing concrete.

For starters, the gauge is heavy enough so it won't bend under pressure from a late-July tomato plant that has grown over the top of the five-foot cage. Cages made from re-mesh won't blow down if they're anchored by three stakes, which in turn are tied to the sides of the cage by tightly twisted 18-gauge wire.

This sounds like overkill until you survey your garden the morning after a storm and find a once-bushy Early Girl uprooted and blown, cage and all, across the garden.

Re-mesh also has a following among tomato growers because the sections in the mesh are about 5 inches by 6 inches. Unless you're shooting for the blue ribbon in giant beefsteaks, that's an ample opening for reaching in and pulling out any tomato.

We made nine cages out of a 50-foot roll of re-mesh Saturday. Begin rolling the mesh out against the bend and count out a piece 10 squares wide. Have your partner stand on the end of the mesh while you cut it off using bolt cutters or a pair of heavy pliers with a wire cutter in the handle.

You'll want to make your cuts so that you leave a five-inch prong at the end of each section. Pick up the piece of mesh and bend it around into a circle. Twist the prongs around with pliers to fasten the cage together.

These cages will last for years.

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