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May 18, 2006

Tomato Season - Dirt - by Amy Stewart


It happened again. I got suckered into planting tomatoes. I'm already regretting it.

In his new book The $64 Tomato : How One Man Nearly Lost his Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, William Alexander documents — and accounts for — his struggle to grow the perfect tomato and otherwise maintain order in his garden. When he adds up the cost of his tomato patch, starting with the deer proof electrified fence and tracking every penny he spent all season long, he realized that each sweet, juicy tomato cost him $64 to produce.

William, my heart goes out to you. I did a similar calculation a few years ago and decided that the costs of raised beds (to keep the roots warm), premium organic potting soil (for better fertility and to reduce exposure to pathogens already living in my soil), drip irrigation (to avoid getting the leaves wet and spreading disease) and plastic-covered trellises (to provide a greenhouse-like environment to keep the plants warm on cool, windy days) were hardly justified given the paltry yields I was getting. Oh, and that doesn't even include the costs of the plants themselves and the organic fertilizers and disease controls I lavished upon them.

I decided to give up on tomatoes and just buy them at the farmers' market, where I could get a dazzling variety of gorgeous, juicy tomatoes grown just a few miles inland, where the warmer climate makes such miracles as vine-ripened tomatoes possible. That system worked pretty well until this spring, when I found myself standing in front of a vendor's booth at the San Francisco garden show, listening to a finely-crafted sales pitch for a gadget that would solve all my problems.

The Topsy Turvy Tomato Planter is a sturdy bag that hangs from a hook. There's an opening at the top to add soil, fertilizer, and water, and an opening at the bottom for the tomato plant. The plant grows upside-down, but not straight down — its natural desire to grow upright means that it hangs down but also reaches toward the sky, forming a kind of compact bush around the planter. I always thought this was a silly, unnatural way to grow a tomato, but as I listened to the sales pitch, I warmed to the idea. Consider this:

No soil-borne pathogens. The tomato grows in the good potting soil you provide for it.

Plenty of sunlight and warmth. Just hang it in a spot that gets full sun. I chose the south-facing wall of my chicken coop, which not only gets sunlight all day long, but also gets radiated warmth from the wall of the coop. The roots warm up faster because they're not growing in the chilly ground.

Easy to water: Just pour a little water in the hole at the top. The water goes right to the root zone where the plants need it most. Same goes for fertilizer.

No pruning or staking: Just let the vine grow. Better air circulation, too.

See? What's not to like? I bought two of them. And last weekend, when the sun came out and it really felt like summer was on its way, I went out to the nursery and bought my tomato plants. So did half of Eureka — the optimistic half, the half that can't resist the siren song of a warm day in late spring. Of course it's safe to plant tomatoes. Of course it won't get foggy and damp again. Of course the blight and the aphids will stay away and the crop will be glorious. We are gardeners, and this is what we have to believe.

And it was fun, believing all that. It really was. I got home with my plants and my soil and my fertilizer, and I planted my tomatoes in their odd little plastic bags and hung them upside-down on the chicken coop. It felt good to be out on a sunny afternoon, covered with the acrid smell of tomato leaves and the warm, rich scent of the dirt. But that night, the fog moved in, and the next morning I stood in front of them, shivering in my sweater, apologizing for having brought them to this place. It was too late, though. Some of the leaves were turning purple. The blossoms had fallen off. I know an unhappy tomato plant when I see one, and these plants were miserable.

So I wait, and sulk, and wonder if I'll get a single $64 tomato out of the deal. Meanwhile, I just noticed that you can also grow squash, eggplant, peppers and basil in those Topsy-Turvy planters. If we get another warm, sunny weekend, I may have an entire vegetable garden hanging by its neck out on the chicken coop. I know that it's unrealistic, extravagant and unnecessary to try to grow these warm-weather crops in my garden, but isn't that what spring is all about?

Send garden news to amystewart@northcoastjournal.com, or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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