They were all clustered together, the whole farm crew, very excited about something. “Totally ripe!” somebody cried. “Full orange!” It was one tiny Sungold tomato, the first of the season, and a cult of ancient sun-worshipers could not have been more ardent.
There are other such moments at our place: the first strawberry, the first ripe melon, the first artichoke. But the first tomato is the real starting gun of summer.
Songwriter Guy Clark had it right: “Only two things that money can’t buy: That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” And neither of the two comes easy. Tomatoes can be elusive in a cool, rainy year, when they’re slow to color up. Sometimes tomato hornworms can intrude. (Pick ’em off!) Perhaps the biggest headache you’ve had with tomatoes is the vines themselves, whose natural inclination is to creep over the sun-warmed ground. If you grow an indeterminate variety, you must support the long vines with strong stakes, a fence, a trellis or whatever you can manage. With indeterminates — which just keep growing, hence their name — the best way to forestall a tomato jungle is to prune them to one stem by pinching off any suckers that grow in the forks made by the main stem and the fruiting branches.
The tomato season has its own arc, from that first nickel-sized Sungold or Sweet 100, to the great red wave that flows from the garden by midsummer. Store-bought winter tomatoes are so bad that you’ll happily drown in lycopene-laden juice, now that you can. Bring it on. And the choices are so rich — from tiny currant tomatoes to big beefsteaks, cute saladettes, bicolored heirlooms and oval ones of every size.
Here’s my advice: If you’ve found this crop too challenging to be fun, just plant some cherry tomatoes, which are nearly foolproof, and get your big reds from a farmers market. The plum-shaped paste-type tomatoes are also easy and tend to be determinate — that is, they get to three or four feet tall, then set all their fruit and cease growing. So holding them upright is not a great feat of engineering. You can even let them sprawl on the ground. I love the grand old San Marzanos, bred almost a century ago in Italy. They are made to be simmered down into tomato sauce and tomato paste, and then may be canned or frozen. Because tomatoes are believed to provide more nourishment for us after they are cooked, there’s even more justification for that yearly ritual. And it gives you a winter-long supply of real tomato flavor.
This time of year, while I still have a few jars of my put-up tomato puree left, I’ll make one of my favorite soups. To the puree I’ll add long-sauteed chopped onions, some quick-sauteed, crumbled, country-style sausage, a dash of sweet sherry, a squirt of Tabasco and — this is the key — some fresh raw tomatoes chopped up and tossed in at the last minute. Ring out the old tomato season, ring in the new.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Avoid placing saucers under outdoor containers: They cause waterlogging and plant decline, and can provide habitat for mosquitoes. Instead, keep the soil level an inch or two below the lip of the pot to permit efficient and thorough watering.
— Adrian Higgins