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August 24, 2006

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Tomato Tasings

by AMY STEWART


Earlier this year, I said that I was re-entering the dicey world of Humboldt tomato growing with a new planter called a Topsy-Turvy that allows the tomato to hang upside down, which lets it grow without coming into contact with soil and soil-borne diseases. It also keeps the roots warm and eliminates the need for staking.

To my surprise, this little experiment has worked out very well. I had Sungold cherry tomatoes in July, and now I'm enjoying some tasty little red something-or-others that I picked up at the farmer's market earlier this year. The plants hang against the chicken coop where they get plenty of heat, and there is no competition from weeds except for the upwardly mobile hollyhocks that I don't have the heart to cut down.

It's easy to add fertilizer to the hole in the top of the planter, and I've actually remembered to do so, sprinkling in a little of FoxFarm's Tomato & Vegetable formula every month or two. And although I'm a terrible container gardener, always forgetting to water, the tomatoes hang in a high-traffic area, right next to the door to the chicken coop, so I'm reminded to water them every couple of days.

Now, my own homegrown tomatoes are not the best I've had all year. Those always come from the farmers' market. There's no substitute for those gloriously misshapen, overripe-to-the-point-of-bursting heirlooms grown just far enough inland to benefit from the heat. I've been carting them home every week, along with a bunch of fresh basil, and living off them all weekend long.

But I'd forgotten how nice it is to just run out to the backyard and grab a tomato. And when that tomato gets scrambled with some fresh eggs for breakfast, I start to feel downright self-sufficient. For that reason alone, I think the Topsy-Turvy tomato planters are here to stay.

Late summer is the best time to make decisions about next year's tomato garden. You're in the thick of it now, fighting off pests, pinching suckers, trying to water, chopping back weeds and wondering if you can possibly keep up with it all. But next spring, you will have forgotten how insane a late-summer garden can get, and you'll be ready to do it all over again. Think now about getting ready for next year's beds:

Rotate your crops. If tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or potatoes are planted in the same spot year after year, soil-borne disease can build up. Rotate plants in this family, alternating with, for instance, a bed where you grow lettuce or herbs.

Start next year's bed now. If you've already got a spot for next year's tomatoes, you can get it going early by smothering weeds with layers of newspaper or cardboard, piling on layers of compost, aged manure, mulch, dried leaves, grass clippings, etc., and then planting a cover crop like fava beans in the fall. The beans will grow all winter long, putting down roots that hold soil in place and fix nitrogen. Chop them down when they begin to bloom in spring and add them to the compost pile.

Taste, and make notes about the best varieties. This is the fun part. Make notes about what worked or didn't work in your own garden this year, but get out and taste some other tomatoes too. Whenever I can, I try to make it down to Santa Rosa for the Kendall Jackson annual heirloom tomato festival in early September. They harvest more than a hundred varieties of heirlooms from the winery garden and arrange them, wine-tasting style, from the lightest whites to the darkest reds. Making it all the way around the table takes a strong stomach, and remembering which varieties you liked best demands detailed note-taking. I've even attempted it in teams, going with a group of friends so that we can each take one portion of the table and make recommendations to the others. The best part of these festivals are the tomato-themed dishes that local chefs make. I've tasted tomato crème brulee, a Tomatini cocktail with a pickled green tomato for garnish and tri-color tomato sorbet -- one scoop each of yellow, green and red.

But this year you don't have to drive to Santa Rosa to sample the harvest. The fine people at Flying Blue Dog nursery are holding a free tomato tasting at Miller Farms on Sunday, Aug. 27 from 1-2 p.m. You'll get to meet the growers, sample some tomatoes that grow well in our area and make your plans for next year's garden. Enjoy!

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

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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