May 12, 2010

A Tale of Three Tomatoes. ~ Graham Markel

Premium Pomodoros.

In my life, I’ve had tomatoes from three gardeners that have blown my mind. One in Alabama, one in Italy and one right here in my home state, Colorado.

My grandpa wrote a book titled, Your Backyard Garden. He had a small plot with tall bean poles made of wagon wheels, with enough space between rows to fit the lawn mower. He called himself a gentleman gardener. His three favorite vegetables to grow were green beans, hot peppers and tomatoes. His Beefsteak tomatoes were nearly as big as his head! Along with the size, they had amazing flavor. Everything grown in the red earth of Alabama tastes great. It’s all that iron, I guess.

One of my all-time favorite tomatoes comes from another backyard. Two years ago, I spent five months working on sailboats on Procida, a small island just off the coast of Naples. It’s one of the great tomato strongholds. At lunch, we’d eat at the home of Ellio Scotto Di Perta, a gentleman gardener much like my grandfather. His passion is equal to that of any gardener, but he also had the advantage of dark volcanic soil straight from the mouth of Mount Vesuvius. Most of what we ate came from his land: eggs, fava beans, rabbits, and of course, tomatoes. His cherry tomatoes were a sunburst of flavor that would erupt in your mouth. I will never eat as well as I did during those five months.

Last, I come to the tomatoes grown by my godfather, Mike Saunders—or as I call him, Uncle Mikey. In yet another backyard, he grows 40 different types of heirloom tomatoes. In less than an acre, he produces over two tons of tomatoes a year. In the supposedly hard alkaline soil of Colorado, Mike’s garden thrives. Among other plants he grows squash, kale, lettuce and those wonderful tomatoes.  The vast harvest of organic and biodynamic tomatoes from Mike’s garden make it all worthwhile. I enjoy them with a little salt and extra virgin olive oil. That’s it. A meal in itself.

Throughout history, in our spoken tradition, in literature and even The Bible, farmers have complained about growing conditions. It rains too much or too little. It’s too hot or too cold. There is no such thing as the perfect year, or the perfect plot of land.

That would take all the fun out of it. It’s important to remember that gardening is a labor of love, and always a work in progress. The challenge of growing your own food and starting to create a sustainable life is a priceless gift.

Mike is tired of hearing how hard it is to grow vegetables in high, dry, arid Colorado. For every negative thing said about gardening in our state, Mike can offer up a positive. It’s not all bad when it comes to growing vegetable gardens on the Front Range of Colorado. Due to the altitude and lack of humidity, we’re spared most of the insect problems plaguing the rest of the world. The one pest that we do have is the endearing tomato worm. These succulent “aliens” are entertaining, horned creatures that delight children. The dry climate also keeps the fungus, mildew and rotting conditions at bay. Less rain can be a good thing. Mike says, “Through drip irrigation, you control the water; the water does not control you.” In many parts of the country, gardeners are deluged with rain. Our Front Range sandy soil percolates well. Farming and gardening have always been about aiding and abetting Mother Nature to create the ideal growing environment. It is hard to get the desired results by just sticking a plant in the ground.

Luther Burbank, father of American horticulture, said, “dig a home, not a hole.” If ever there were an appropriate place for incorporating this adage, it is on the Front Range. Truly the most valuable time spent in the garden is in creating organic and enriched soil. Composting is critical. Our alkaline soil needs compost, and lots of it—plants are nothing but a subset of the quality of the soil you create. Mike adds coffee grounds to his beds to balance the soil’s PH. Using John Jeavons’ method of French intensive gardening, or Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamics, building raised beds, you will be amazed by the quality and quantity of veggies you can grow in small space. During the summer and fall, Colorado night temperatures can dip low. And since a plant’s survival relies on soil temperature, planting on the south side of a building or a wall increases the soil’s solar gain, which is helpful. Mike also lays down sheets of black landscaping fabric to help absorb the sun’s heat.

Although conditioning the soil is time-consuming, selecting the right plant is quite simple:

Don’t buy at the big box stores; those plants were grown in places like Texas.

Do buy at the Growing Gardens’ Community Plant Sale.

Always buy locally, where the tomatoes are grown with love and specifically for our Front Range climate and conditions. The Growing Gardens is a wonderful, homegrown community organization; support it, it’s important. The best selection of heirloom tomatoes can be found at their Community Plant Sale here in Boulder. A knowledgeable gardener, perhaps even my Uncle Mike, can help you select the tomato plants that best match your culinary preferences.

Volunteers care for the seeds that will become starters for the annual plant sale. The Growing Gardens Community Plant Sale benefits the Cultiva Youth Project. This project helps area youth by providing them with an excellent learning experience, as well as a summer job. The teens learn how to cultivate a two-acre garden and sell their bounty at the Boulder Farmers’ Market.

Significant portions of the vegetables also go to local families in need. Each year Cultiva Youth Project grows around 10,000 lbs of CSA produce for low-income families with food challenges. Through this project, youth learn to care for and protect the environment, how to operate a small business, and take part in a variety of activities which create positive change for the community, environment, and all who are touched by the program.

The plant sale’s starters are also beneficial. If you are planting a garden, it is much easier to use starters versus planting seeds for tomatoes and flowers. The starters sold are all grown organically.

Lucky for you, the plant sale is next Saturday, May 15th from 8:00am to 4:00pm at 1630 Hawthorn Avenue. Visit Growing Gardens’ website for more information.

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