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Bitten by the Tomato Bug

They had the house and the space. But did they have the will to grow their own tomatoes?

June 01, 1997|BOB BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This story is rooted in an old childhood fear: tomato bugs. Big ugly tomato bugs. Green worms that would attack the tomatoes and, eventually, the child herself.

This was the fear my wife brought to the table whenever I mentioned that it might be fun to grow our own tomatoes instead of eating the red cardboard ovals they sell in supermarkets.

"My mother and grandmother planted rows of tomatoes in the backyard," Marj explained, "and occasionally they would find big green tomato bugs and it used to send shivers up my spine. Yuck--I hated them."

Growing tomatoes would have been easy for us: We had a house. We had the space. We even had a hubby willing to drop his general disdain of vegetables and give planting a try.

Alas, no amount of good intentions could vanquish the fear of big ugly bugs. That and the fact that the only side of our house with the right sunlight was already landscaped. Inertia set in. Years passed.

Then, two winters ago, Marj decided to eliminate chemicals from her diet. And around that time our friend Tina gave us a bag of her home-grown cherry tomatoes. We were stunned at how great they tasted. It was the culinary equivalent of seeing color TV for the first time.

The quest began. We would grow our own.

First question: Where?

Still unwilling to rip out existing landscaping, Marj was leafing through a book in a nursery about vegetable gardening in containers--and the light went on.

Next thing I knew, I was shoving heavy whiskey barrels into the trunk of my Saturn. I took 'em home. I drilled holes in 'em like the book said. I put 'em on wooden casters. Filled 'em both with a couple of cubic feet of potting soil. Marj, the brains of the operation, planted two Early Girl tomato plants in one, and two red pepper plants and lettuce seeds in the other.

And then we waited, feeding our seedlings with Miracle Grow.

The pepper plants were a complete failure--out of both, only a lone pepper grew, and a visiting 2-year-old great-niece innocently picked and killed it.

So we waited some more.

Finally, out of nowhere, little yellow flowers began to appear on our tomato plants. If we didn't blow it, every one of these would be a tomato. When there were too many flowers on a vine, we'd pinch them back so the tomatoes that grew would be bigger.

Gradually, the book said, little green balls would form from the flower. Then they would grow, until they were somewhere between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. And then would come the real drama: the day that first touch of red appeared, sometimes seeming to turn from green to red overnight.

And so we kept waiting.

Every day that spring, Marj and our daughter, Amanda, then 9, would check out the containerized farmland, dreaming those harvest dreams, at one point placing a cardboard sign in one of the two barrels: A&M Produce.

And finally, that July, it happened. The tomatoes turned red. We would feast. Except, of course, that there were only four plants worth of tomatoes to devour.

Didn't matter. I still remember cutting the first tomato into quarters. Each of us savored that tiny chunk. It was a big deal--not merely because it tasted so good, but that it was ours. Alas, the total haul from this deal was about six tomatoes, an awfully short season.

*

We brooded about this all fall and then, in the winter of '96, made a radical decision: I took a shovel and dug up the shrubs along the south side of the house because that's where the sunshine was. (So much sun that it had killed off almost everything we'd ever tried to plant there.)

First, though, we had to solve another problem that had hindered growth on this land: the ground was as hard as cement. If there was a half-inch of rain in the morning, there would still be a quarter-inch of accumulated water by afternoon. So I dug up as much dirt as I could and replaced it with potting soil, giving us a fresh 9 inches.

Into this ground went six tomato plants: five Early Girls and one cherry tomato plant.

Came spring, they exploded. They grew so high they spilled out of the top of the tomato cages. The yield was far beyond what we'd imagined. We knew we'd found the right mixture of light and heat.

We couldn't keep up with them. We were constantly giving tomatoes away to neighbors and friends, and eating huge tomato-and-feta cheese salads every night. When we went on vacation last July our neighbors picked and dined on them for two weeks.

So what are the lessons here?

"Be maniacal when you're shopping for tomato plants," Marj says. "Make sure they're well-established--not puny. We look for 1-gallon or 4-inch container sizes, depending on what's available at the time and what looks healthier. But they grow very fast, so don't worry about taking a slightly smaller plant." (I trust her completely, which is why I never go shopping. When Marj says "we," she is referring to her gardening companion, Marguerite. Let her continue.)

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