If vegetable gardening has a downside, it's that eating vine-ripened tomatoes ruins us for lesser specimens. Having tasted the real thing, we can never truly enjoy a tomato that was picked before its prime.
For people who are fanatical about their homegrown tomatoes, this makes the winter months a test of endurance. I've found, however, that it's easier to go without than to try to eat grocery-store tomatoes in February. Not only are they ridiculously expensive, but they also are astonishingly devoid of flavor.
All of this is context for an e-mail I received last week from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous, for reasons that will become obvious. Having waited out many a tomatoless winter, this reader decided to try to keep his tomato crop active through the cold months.
Late in the summer, he started a tomato plant in a large pot and, when the temperatures dipped this fall, brought it indoors. For the initial experiment, he used grape tomato seeds, which was a logical move given that grape tomatoes tend to achieve their flavor more quickly on the vine. Also, with smaller fruit, there's less chance for something to go wrong.
He also chose an indeterminate variety so the plant would set fruit continuously and the tomatoes would keep coming over a period of time.
He placed the tomato plant in front of the south-facing, double-pane windows in a solarium in his home but did not provide artificial light or an additional heat source, even though the temperature in the room fluctuates with the arrival of the afternoon sun and sunset. About every two weeks, he's been giving the plant a shot of Miracle-Gro.
Although the plant grew, little happened until December, when blossoms appeared. The reader used a cotton swab to pollinate the plant and may have had some help from fruit flies that showed up. Nature took its course, and the plant began setting fruit. Now the reader and his wife are picking homegrown tomatoes in the dead of winter.
Having vine-ripened tomatoes in your solarium in February is akin to having morel mushrooms growing in your backyard in May. If this analogy is lost on you, think about all the new best friends you'd have if you won the lottery. People who are fortunate enough to have "real" tomatoes in February keep a lid on it, except, perhaps, to e-mail the photographic evidence to a discreet food and gardening columnist.
As one who has been let in on the secret, I'm not too proud to admit to pangs of envy. From my tomatoless vantage, that's one fine-looking tomato plant, even though its owner thinks he may have overwatered a bit.
I immediately imagined what it must be like to be able to brush the leaves together and release the tomato plant's signature aroma - in February. When I have started tomato plants indoors in late winter, that smell, floating up from small tomato seedlings, is my cue that spring is on its way. The effect is amazing as it transports me almost instantly into the new season.
In the meantime, I can leaf through the seed catalogs and wish I'd had the same foresight. Like all of life's trials, the months without vine-ripened tomatoes will pass.