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You say tomato; so does he

Bill Anderson loves growing the juicy fruit -- nearly 11,000 of them last year. He's not alone in his obsession.

September 16, 2008|Mary MacVean | Times Staff Writer

Last year, Bill Anderson grew 10,990 tomatoes, not counting the ones consumed by Buster the Manchester terrier.

He picked the first two on May 2 and the last 11 on Oct. 4. Five months later, he planted the first of this year's seedlings.

Anderson and his wife, Christine Griego, don't have a back 40. They live with two dogs in a small house on a 6,500-square-foot lot in Winnetka. Aside from the tomato plants -- 34 last year -- there's some grass, a few trees, a few dozen rose bushes. But as you approach their house, there's no mistaking what's at the top of this food chain. The frontyard is full of tomatoes: along the sidewalk, in an area Anderson calls the koi pond, in pots by the front door. A small sign with a painting of a tomato hangs on the front door.

The backyard is ringed with tomato plants, some in the bright Valley sun much of the day, others shaded by a huge Ponderosa pine.

Still. Ten thousand nine hundred ninety tomatoes? How did Anderson even begin to know that?

He chronicled his obsession. Each morning of the tomato season he collected the ripe fruit and spread them out on his kitchen counter. He organized them by variety and entered the totals onto index cards stored in a cookie jar, for later transfer onto spreadsheets. And he ate tomatoes -- for snacks, in salads and sauces. He and Griego gave them away, fed them to friends. They froze tomatoes. Lots of them; in February, they still had frozen tomatoes to give away.

As the 2008 season began, Anderson figured he was on track to harvest around 15,000 tomatoes from 52 plants. That was about twice the number he and Griego intended to plant, but a friend gave them some seedlings, and they ended up with 16 more after volunteering at a plant sale. What could they do?

Anderson, 46, doesn't want people to think tomatoes are the center of his life. He has a job (software development); he has friends. He and Griego have been married for a year. Be that as it may, he is extraordinarily devoted to his tomatoes.

That doesn't make him unique. Not by a long shot.

"If you think that growing backyard tomatoes is just that, you're missing the point," said Scott Daigre, a garden designer whose Tomatomania seedling sale has become an intensely awaited kickoff to the season. "It's a search for the past, a romantic search for a memory, a hope of reliving a childhood experience, a great dinner."

Tomatomania was founded in 1991 as a one-day sale at a now-closed nursery. Daigre eventually bought the event and the trademark, and this year held six Tomatomania sales, five in California and one in Connecticut, offering "the most interesting heirlooms and hybrids that are not commercially grown that we can find."

That translated into 300 or so varieties, of the thousands that exist.

Half an hour before the Encino Tomatomania sale opened at 9 a.m. on April 4, the parking lot was half-full.

"Who sleeps in for Christmas?" one shopper asked.

Walking the aisles of plastic flats of seedlings, starting at $4 apiece, was a little like walking the racks at the Barney's warehouse sale. It was impossible not to worry: What if everyone else was getting the best stuff? What if they ran out of Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter?

Tomatomania requires strategy, said Anderson, who, with Griego, was among the volunteer workers this year.

"It is like the board game Risk -- you go there, I'll go this way," Anderson said. But you need to leave room for serendipity or to take the advice that flows among shoppers.

That guidance might include passionate testimonials for Big Boy, Better Boy, Tough Boy, Big Beef or Lemon Boy. Black Plum, Black Krim, Black from Tula, Black Brandywine or Cherokee Purple. Boxcar Willie, Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Red, Kellogg's Breakfast, Red Currant, Mr. Stripey, Italian Ice or Julia Child.

Daigre estimated that 12,000 to 15,000 people attended the six Tomatomania sales; the average sale is eight to 10 seedlings.

Burr Buman, a marine consultant who was shopping at Tomatomania, chalked in well above average. This year, he planted "as many as 80 plants," a lot of them "black-skinned" tomatoes such as Paul Robeson or Carbon. "This year is my year for the blacks," Buman said.

He rigged 25-gallon pots and a drip watering system on his roof in Newport Beach and started the season with 15 trash cans full of compost and 3 cubic yards of dirt.

Is it a lot of work? "Of course. My wife seems to think I'm obsessed."

Like Buman, many shoppers focused on black tomatoes -- many of them actually mauve or brown in color -- this year. Color, shape and taste all matter to growers and cooks.

What's the best tomato? Simple, according to Daigre. "My favorite tomato is the last one I ate," he said.

His favorite recipe? "Pick a great tomato. Wash it. Or not. Cut it. Or not. Salt it. Or not. Eat it."

Toward the end of March, Anderson was ready for planting. He had turned the dirt in the front and back yards to better nurture the seedlings. A large container of compost sat in the driveway.

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