Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Mighty Hungarian Heart

My first tomato of the, millennium... a Hungarian Heart.

I've been growing tomatoes (or trying to) for most of my adult life. I started by planting seeds in a window box in my 6th floor tenement walkup in NYC one spring. I got my first stunted little tomato in December. I didn't know the flowers needed to be pollinated; I suppose some house flies eventually did the job.

A few years later I was living in the wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania and running a seasonal plant nursery. My tomato plants grew lushly, but I got very few fruits due to (take your pick) not enough rain, too much rain or early frost.

From PA I moved to Maine, and I knew better than to bother with growing tomatoes there. But then I moved to Virginia. Tomato Central! Over the course of several summers, I spent well over $300 on tomato plants, cages, stakes, fertilizer, compost, etc. But my yard was overhung by many shade trees, most notably oak and hickory. So the spots that were sunny in late March, when I optimistically planted my garden, were in shade by June.

Thanks to the oak and hickory, my yard was also Squirrel Central. And squirrels, I soon learned, have a nasty habit of waiting till a tomato is almost ripe and taking just one bite out of it, rendering it useless except as compost. I thought I'd lick the shade and squirrel problem by planting tomatoes in tubs on the sunny patio right behind the house. The plants did much better, but the squirrels marauded just as much. I ultimately got just two edible tomatoes; amortized out, they made the $4.99/lb ones at Whole Foods look like a bargain.

I gave up on growing tomatoes, but for my last two summers in VA we still ended up with pounds and pounds of them (blackberries too) fresh from the garden. Just not from my garden. I used to walk Jenny in and around a community garden by some woods not far from my home. There was one old guy who grew blackberries on his plot, and another who grew scores of tomato plants. But by midsummer, the guys would stop coming around and the fruits would be rotting on the vine. So I started carrying a large bag (or two) when I walked the dog.

Now I'm in Denver, on a narrow, sun-blasted city lot. I've planted several trees, but it will be a long time till they can sustain any squirrels. Though our yard here is maybe 1/5 the size of the one in VA, Jenny spends a lot more time outside because it's completely fenced in. The few neighboring squirrels stopped coming by thanks to her and the ever-vigilant Max, who spends most of his time outside (though right now he's splayed out on my desk for his afternoon snooze).

So with high hopes, this spring I planted five tomato plants--three heirloom varieties from the Denver Botanic Gardens and two from Home Depot. They're in full sunshine and planted near the back porch, so they get lots of attention. (To be honest, there's only about 30 feet directly behind the back porch, so in fact most of the backyard is near it.)

I was--and continue to be--inordinately thrilled that our tomato plants have actual tomatoes on them. WITH NO BITE MARKS! The very first one that ripened (see pic above) is a rambunctious heirloom variety called Hungarian Heart, which is already exploding out of its 4' cage. Its fruit sure looks like a real heart; we made lots of heart jokes as I cut into it at dinner last night. It tasted great: sweet, juicy, no acidy aftertaste. Can't wait for the others!

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