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July 11, 1993|Janice Emily Bowers | Janice Emily Bowers is a Tucson, Ariz., writer who is trained as a botanist. This essay is adapted from her latest book, "A Full Life in a Small Place and Other Essays From a Desert Garden," 1993, published by University of Arizona Press.

" I suppose in most women the creative instinct displays itself in the planning and decoration of a house. We are not great musicians--there is no female Bach or Beethoven--nor painters--there is no Velasquez in petticoats. " -- British author Esther Meynell

I ONCE BELIEVED THAT THE SWEETEST WORDS IN ENGLISH WERE "THE TIDE IS OUT"--THAT'S WHEN THE secret world of swirling seaweeds and wavering anemones is revealed to human eyes--but now I think that vine-ripened tomatoes comes close, maybe even surpasses them. There's nothing like that explosion of tomato flavor in the mouth, especially after the long drought of winter and spring, when the only fresh tomatoes available are perfectly formed impostors so heartbreakingly anemic that you wonder if they were ever attached to a vine or whether they didn't plop out of a vending machine instead.

I read in the paper recently that breeders are putting the flavor back into store-bought tomatoes: Sure, I said, and they're funneling the toothpaste back into the tube, too. In the meantime, I refuse to buy tomatoes at the supermarket, and from September to May, my green salads are quite literally that--green--as innocent of tomatoes as Europe before Cortez. It's a moral stance as well as a culinary one. I may have to put up with quarters filled with copper and orange juice made from concentrate, but I draw the line at aluminum baseball bats and celluloid tomatoes. Where's the authenticity in a life based upon substitutes?

My tomato season begins on New Year's Day, when I plant several seeds in each of six or seven milk cartons. Every year, the temptation to plant all the seeds in the package is nearly insurmountable. In the middle of winter, the prospect of 40 or 50 tomato vines seems not daunting but exhilarating, and someday, if I ever have enough garden space, I may succumb. By the end of February, the seedlings are strong enough to set in the ground, which I do, even though the danger of frost won't be over for two more weeks. I follow the weather reports, and if cold nights threaten, I cover the plants with heavy paper bags.

An early start is important in Arizona because our climate is marginal for tomato growing. The flowers won't set fruit when temperatures are below 55 degrees or above 100, and since March nights are generally chilly and June days are invariably hot, we have only a small window of opportunity for tomato set. When an unusually cool spring combines with an extraordinarily hot summer, this window narrows to a slit.

IN MY GARDEN, FRUIT SET USUALLY BEGINS BY THE END OF MARCH. UNTIL THEN, FLOWERS OPEN, WAIT, then fall barren to the ground, a source of anxiety with June just around the corner. Gardening books sometimes suggest that you can improve fruit set by shaking the flower stalks or tapping them sharply with a pencil. Certainly this won't harm the plants, but I think the benefits are mostly psychological.

If you look at a tomato flower under a hand lens, you'll see that the five anthers are arranged in a ring, creating a cylinder of empty space where pollen collects. In elongating through this mass of pollen, the pistil becomes pollinated, and if all goes well, the fertilized ovary develops into a fruit. This is self-fertilization, a process that requires no intermediaries--no bees, no butterflies, no anxious gardeners equipped with pencils. All it takes is reasonably warm temperatures and an adequate supply of mature leaves, which provide nutrient materials. (Sugars are the foremost of these, but laboratory scientists have been able to ripen tomatoes in petri dishes by injecting the immature fruits with any number of chemical compounds, including amino acids, ascorbic acid and, rather perversely, tomato juice.)

No larger than glass pinheads at first, the fruits swell rapidly, and by the end of April, they are visibly ripening, losing that raw green color and beginning to blush pale orange from the bottom up. As more and more leaves are produced, the pace of fruit set increases, and the burden of fruits pulls the branches down. The plants themselves, flourishing and undisciplined, sprawl across the ground, badly needing to be staked. Their leaves and branches are clammy to the touch, leaving an impression of dampness, but oddly there's never any moisture to brush away.

For tomatoes set out in late February, the moment of perfect ripeness comes sometime in May--never early enough. When ripe, a tomato is bright red from top to bottom. Vermilion will not do; they must be red to be fully sweet. My six tomato vines produce only one or two ripe tomatoes at first. These are precious objects, and I prepare them simply. Later in the season, when tomatoes are abundant, I fix spaghetti sauce or cheese and tomato pie.

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