Scene and Heard

Scene and Heard: Anticipation of Delectable Tomatoes Danced on My Tongue

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By Scene And Heard
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Our once-promising venture into back-deck farming is producing a crop of huge tomatoes that are red on the top and rotting brown on the bottom. Reader Finn McCabe reports the same problem and wonders why we are so clueless as to the cause. Well, we're not asking Nan Nelson (see below) for help, but can some one of you out there tell us where we went wrong?

Nothing says August like a homegrown tomato, that succulent orb featuring a hint of yellow on its crown, impossibly delicious by itself or in a BLT. It's been years since I've enjoyed an excellent tomato, and that was during a winter vacation in the Bahamas. The vegetable stands around here that promise locally grown tomatoes tend to disappoint.

So it came as no surprise that when I caught the ad on TV for an upside-down tomato planter, I thought I had found nirvana. The ad, in case you haven't seen it, begins in black and white, revealing a middle-aged man struggling with a shovel, groaning in pain because his back just went out, and weeks later staring ruefully at the results of his hard work: a tangled bundle of vines containing the remains of an insect-ravaged tomato.

Suddenly, the ad is in full color, and our truck farmer and his wife are beaming. She's cradling a large basket full of gorgeous tomatoes, and he's busy removing more tomatoes from a lush vine tumbling from a round canister hooked on a shepherd's crook.

Even before the ad ended, I was in my car and headed from my Bethesda neighborhood to a big-box store in Rockville. When I arrived, I was crestfallen to learn that they were out of the product. I was told the Gaithersburg store had them in stock, so I hurried out I-270 and managed to score one of these amazing planters.

Assembling the planter is a breeze. Simply pre-drill a hole in solid wood. Using the provided screw eye, twist until all threads are securely in the wood. Do not hang in sheetrock or vinyl siding overhangs. Arrange the hooks around the top of the canister, remove the split sponge from the locking collar and clamp the tomato seedling (not included) inside the split sponge by holding the sponge from the top inside and then insert it back into the locking collar. For more tomatoes, plant TWO seedlings at once. Look forward to 30 pounds of deliciously ripe tomatoes per plant!

My upside-down planter assembly required the efforts of two strong adults. First, I had to visit the nursery to purchase a shepherd's crook from which to hang the planter. When we ascertained that the hook was not tall enough, my husband rooted around in the shed and found a six-foot length of hollow metal pipe, into which we inserted the crook. I gently inserted the tomato seedling root ball-first into the tiny opening in the bottom of the canister (I chose a cherry tomato because I was informed by the big-box store clerk that these planters cannot support the heft of a Better Boy or Early Girl). I stood on a ledge to dump the potting soil inside the top and watered the container until water dribbled out the bottom.

The befuddled little seedling eventually got the message that if it wanted to survive, it better start growing upside down. Over a period of weeks, the vines struggled toward the sun while I rubbed my hands, giddy with anticipation.

And finally my crop has come in. Three pathetic little cherry tomatoes cling to a withering vine in a canister that weighs a ton, full of damp potting soil. I figured out the cost of my three tomatoes: Factor in the gas and wear and tear on my car to get the planter in Gaithersburg and the cost of the planter, shepherd's crook, potting soil, fertilizer and tomato plant, each tomato is worth about $20.

I'm thinking about my next winter vacation. Perhaps to the Bahamas.

-- Nan D. Nelson, Bethesda


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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