Are your tomatoes planted yet? The year 2019 almost broke me as a tomato grower. I questioned the very fact of whether one should grow tomatoes — much less 44 or 67, both of which have happened at our house — on a Seattle city lot. Here’s what I did: Don’t let this happen to you.
When I first started gardening, I had no interest in growing food, but here we are thanks to the deceptively perfect tomato summer of 2016, which made the dream possible (vision), working at a retail nursery (opportunity) and an acquisitive/addictive personality (motive).
Through the years, obsessions ensued for perennials, heirloom roses, a cozy detour into hand-dyed yarn and then tomatoes.
In this pursuit, I’m either brave or deluded. The thing about tomatoes is they crave heat.
When temps trawl the low 50s, tomatoes refuse to grow. Seattle, with its blink-you-missed-it summer, misty mornings and chilly nights, has to be one of the world’s toughest tomato towns. Mount Everest base camp and the Monteverde Cloud Forest might be worse, but I’d want to see the data.
Yet the promise of rainbow salads and sandwiches that make your eyes roll back is too much for me to resist, not to mention the tantalizing new and new-to-me cultivars. I’m not alone in this; tomatoes are the most popular vegetable to grow nationwide. If I haven’t had a Caprese sandwich, with creamy mozzarella and balsamic supporting sweet tomato umami, summer hasn’t happened.
Seductive seed catalogs read like a wine list.
There are “smoky,” “salty” and “tropical” tomatoes, as well as the ultimate — the indefinable, know-it-when-you-taste-it “old-fashioned tomato taste” — long lost from supermarket varieties in favor of leathery skins to handle long, bumpy truck rides.
Last season’s 44 included varieties from 6-inch-high “micro-dwarfs,” regular dwarfs on 3-foot plants, tomatoes in every color including blue, sporting stripes, splashes and speckles, storied heirlooms and hot introductions. Nine were planted in the front yard, six in a raised bed, and the remaining 29 were in a motley horde of containers. We had no perceivable patio.
Since that idyllic deep-fried summer of 2016, summer weather conditions turned consistently and cruelly lame.
Summer is our magically dry and sometimes sunny three months that makes the rest of the soggy gray year worth forbearing.
Remember the wildfire smoke of 2017 and ’18? In 2019, the wildfires passed Seattle by! Unfortunately, so did the sun.
Nonetheless, just as I was leaving for a weeklong garden writer’s conference in September, the tomatoes came straggling in. I left with a heart brimming with hope.
I came home to a Tim Burton-style nightmare landscape: Overgrown vines bent like broken umbrellas, some with charcoal-colored stems that spewed ashen dust when touched (blight?). Unripe tomatoes half-eaten, or even worse, marred by a disdainful nibble (squirrels/mice/rats). Ripe fruit obscenely shaggy with white fur (husband had watered, but not harvested).
A lemon cucumber I had planted on a whim in my raised bed had suddenly spurted 15 feet, smothering four tomato plants and stealing their sun.
It looked like that noxious Mayhem guy from the insurance commercials had hexed the place. All before enjoying even a single Caprese sandwich.
That’s when I heard, as we were having dinner, “Mom, you’ve got to stop this.”
Here it was: the intervention. On some level, I knew it was coming.
It was our 15-year-old son, who’d probably seen me eyeing the concrete driveway where he plays basketball for growing space. Walled on three sides, that would be heat-reflecting heaven for tomatoes!
My husband (who had thought the Tomato Experiment charmingly eccentric two years ago), jumped in. In the unchallenging-yet-firm voice you use with the mentally unbalanced, he said, “We need the patio back, hon.”
Not only was I outnumbered, but this season had just beaten me down.
Looking at the facts, I had a tomato epiphany. Seattle needs:
• More water
We often travel in August (prime fruiting/harvest time) to visit family. It doesn’t rain here in summer, and we don’t have an irrigation system (the water department has named us “Gold Level Sponsors”). [Remedy: don’t travel, get an irrigation system];
• More heat
The heat is unpredictable at best. There’s a reason Seattleites wear socks and sandals (this hasn’t happened to me yet, but still). [Remedy: build hoop houses or add season-extenders like “Wallo’Waters” and row-cover fabric]; and
• More light
Wildfires, whose smoke seems to block significant light, are likely to increase with climate change.[Remedy: vote, take action to reduce greenhouse gases].
I had to face my responsibility for this disaster; I knew the odds going in. So, I came up with a number: 10 tomato plants for 2020. Growing in pots on a large scale in this climate without hoop houses, a watering system and preferably a staff is just a recipe for heartbreak.
In light of current events, however, while I agree there is a time for that resolution, 2020 is not that time.
The COVID-19 epidemic has turned the world inside out with real disasters and challenges in all arenas of life.
As mentioned in my first column, if ever there was a year for veggie gardening — a salve for the soul that saves you trips to the supermarket — this is it.
Others may have pet sourdough starters; I have 33 emotional support tomatoes.
— Erica Browne Grivas supports her gardening by writing and by working at Ravenna Gardens nursery. She blames her parents for getting her into gardening. Let her know if you need any tomato seeds.