It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
Charles Dickens, in one of literature’s most well-known openings, was referring to life in London and Paris. I like to think, however, he was writing about my tomatoes.
A few months ago, I shared with you the story of some tomato seeds that my snowbird neighbor had given me. They were, he said, descendants of tomatoes sampled by some American GIs in Germany and Japan in the closing days of WWII. They were, he said, the most delicious tomatoes I’d ever taste.
When I planted the seeds, I had dreams of plump, red, mouth-watering, juicy tomatoes for bruschettas and burgers, salads and salsas. I even chose to ignore the warnings of some local gardeners that tomato plants wouldn’t last that long in zone 10, that Florida soil is notoriously non-nutritious.
To continue the Dickens reference, I had great expectations.
Within a week, seeds became seedlings, and I potted these up. The seedlings became plants and I potted up again. And some of these plants eventually had small yellow flowers, a promise of tomatoes to come.
These were the plants I potted up still further, filling large black, nursery-style pots with rich potting soil and organic matter — and I placed them in a sunny locale on the side of the house, between two newly planted orange and lemon trees. This piece of the yard, I envisioned, would be my “farm.”
But something funny happened on the way to the farm. A very warm spring continued to grow warmer, and what should have been the start of the South Florida rainy season became a mix of humid air and no rain. One forecaster even mentioned Saharan dust in the atmosphere. Really.
Now, as the summer solstice approaches, it’s capital H-O-T. At midday, the sunlight is actually white and blinding — and one-by-one, my tomato plants have figuratively and literally bitten the dust.
As I walk around the yard, shaded by the brim of my straw hat, two plants remain — withered and brown. One plant has a small excuse for a tomato. I wonder if a tomato can roast on the vine.
In considering all that went wrong, I have come up with two causes.
First, I started the seeds too late in the South Florida season, never taking into account how rapidly temperatures could rise in zone 10. The difference between the seasons here is only a few degrees.
Second, I should never have placed the pots in direct sun. With the combination of high heat and hand watering, I essentially cooked the roots in a sort-of organic soup — not exactly the dish I was hoping for with my home-grown tomatoes.
Even I know when it’s time to put a plant out of its misery. There will be no tomatoes from these plants. Instead, I’ll start seeds in late October or early November for a mid-winter harvest.
In the meantime, a local gardener has come to my rescue, presenting me with two small tomato plants. They’re Everglades tomatoes, a small heirloom variety that can withstand hot days and very warm nights. They have a reputation of being a native variety, but more than likely they came from somewhere in the Caribbean.
“Try these,” said the gardener. “You’ll love them. You will not believe the flavor and the juice that’s packed in these little tomatoes.”
Here we go again, I thought to myself.
I have a friend who reads Dickens’ A Christmas Carol each year, in the days leading up to the holidays. While I admire and applaud his tradition, part of me wonders if the story ever grows old. I mean we have Scrooge, the humbugs, the spirits, and the Christmas morning rebirth. It’s the same story.
Or is it?
I’ve also read some books more than once, and it’s astonishing how each reading brings something new to the mix. Part of it is the author’s skill with language, but the other part of the equation is the reader’s imagination and wanting.
So as this local gardener talked up his tomatoes, he pulled me in — like a well-designed book jacket, blurb, and first sentence. In a flash, I once again imagined bruschettas and burgers, salads and salsas. Then he said the words that all gardeners long to hear.
“These are the best tomatoes you’ll ever taste.”
I accepted his small gift and the promise of nothing but the best of times it held.
I just didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had heard this story before — because this time, I know the ending will be different.
42 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Tomatoes”
Talk about “the authors skill with language;” this was beautifully written, Kevin.
Regarding the tomatoes, not my thing anymore. I get mine from John’s Farms. My gardening days ended many moons ago, but reading your blog brings back fond memories of my “vegetable days.” Tomatoes and lettuce, cukes and zucchini, oh my! For now, I do my best to buy local and fresh, when available. But, thanks for the memories! Dickens lives on.
Hi Kathy. I was never much of a vegetable gardener — mostly because it always seemed there would be an over-abundance at the end of the growing season. In this warmer place, I thought I’d be able to grow some fresh produce all year long. I’ll give these new tomatoes a try as I watch my citrus ripen on the trees. 🙂
Tomatoes can be such finicky things! Warm temps, but not enough sun? They don’t produce. Too much sun? They don’t produce. Too much shade? They don’t produce! And so on. Like Little Red Riding Hood in The 3 Little Bears, I’ve found tomatoes like it ‘just right’ 😉 I’m not sure what my tomatoes are thinking right now. One flowered, but I’m not sure it’s going to produce. All the others are growing, growing, growing, but apparently biding their time. No toms by 4th of July this year. 😦 Btw, I reread A Christmas Carol every year before Christmas too!
JO!! My issue with tomatoes is usually the amount that arrives at the end of the growing season. In zone 10, I thought things would be a bit easier, with tomatoes ripening throughout the season. Live and learn, I guess. I love that you read A Christmas Carol each year. I’ve read it once, but watching the Alastair Sims film version is my tradition. 🙂 Hope all is well in your part of the world. Great to hear from you! Cheers!
The Alastair Sim version is my favorite since I was a little girl! 🙂
No holiday is complete without it! 🙂
“Everglades tomatoes” does sound promising though! And don’t worry: even though your first tomatoes fell on some Hard Times doesn’t necessarily mean that these new ones will find your domain a Bleak House to live in. 😉
Hello Chatsworth. Love the literature references! Thanks for that! I’ll keep you posted on my Everglades. 🙂
Good luck with your tomatoes. Nothing like a summer ripe tomato. I’m a big fan of Dickens–maybe I’ll pull a book off the shelf for summer reading.
Hi PBM. Perhaps a book over a tomato salad? Seriously, though, for traditional tomatoes, I’m going to try for a winter-ripe tomato. I’ll let you know.
South Florida… Wait. You mean that isn’t the Caribbean?
Beautifully done, Kevin. I love that you keep learning and writing.
Hi Cheryl. Right now, it feels downright equatorial! This is the season when I retreat inside at the height of the day — better than shoveling snow, but wow — it does get hot! Thank you for your kind words.
sorry to hear about your “baked” tomatoes ! but you have learned something in the process haven’t you !! my tomatoesare doing fine, still small and green but growing and flowering well
I wish you good luck with the new tomatoes, may they grow big bold and tasty !!!
Hi Gwennie. There is always something to learn! These new tomatoes won’t be big, but I’m told they will be bold and tasty. We shall see!
well “big” is not always good, I’d go for small and tasty !! 😀
Hmmmm. Sounds like me. 🙂
by the way I LOVE your new blog picture, the blue and orange are STUNNING !!!!
Thanks, Gwennie. I think I have it set up that each time you visit, there is a different header photo. It’s like blogging roulette. 🙂
Aww, poor little plants. Your humidity is different and your freezes don’t come, but in Central Texas I start my seeds at New Year’s, plant outside at the Ides of March, and if they have to grow in sun all day they get shade cloth on the 4th of July.
I do hope your Everglade tomatoes bring some Pico to your plate in short order.
Hi Plumdirt. Thanks for the tips. So far, those little plants are holding on. I have big plans for my little tomatoes. 🙂
You’ve beautifully written of gardeners’ eternal optimism. We’re cheering for the success of your new Everglades Tomatoes! Hope they truly are the best tomatoes you’ve ever tasted.
Hey Peter. I think gardeners have to be eternal optimists. It’s one of the few areas in life where we can be. It’s what propels us to keep digging and planting. 🙂
The best tomato you’ve ever tasted is the one that you pick sun-warm and ripe from the vine and pop into your mouth — as few seconds as possible between picking and eating. Here’s hoping your Everglades tomatoes make it and do turn out to be the best you’ve ever tasted.
Hello Jean. You said a mouth-full! Believe me, I am sooooo looking forward to some fresh tomatoes. I’m curious about the taste of these little guys.
Many years back, I had very good luck with yellow and red pear-shaped cherry tomatoes in tropical Togo.
Hi Cindy. Hmmm. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for that. I’m told these Everglades tomatoes are yellow and cherry-sized and full of flavor. I’m not sure about the shape though. We shall see. 🙂
I actually had a farmer give me an heirloom tomato to grow and say the same thing. But this time he was right and it was the best I ever tasted. Too bad the top tomato got too much rain. It looks pretty sad.
Hi Donna. I have a feeling that heirlooms are especially flavorful. I’m looking forward to my salad! 🙂
Aw, hears hoping the next story has a happy ending! After all of this, you’ll be an expert in growing in the North AND the South!
Hey Indie. If we don’t get some rain, I may be more of a raisin than an expert! 🙂
Good luck in your tomato quest, I know you can do it! I was too timid this year and only planted cherry tomatoes because large varieties often fail to ripen here in W Washington. But this year is so warm I COULD have grown beefsteaks! Oh well, hard to outguess the weather.
Hi Elaine. My little plants are still holding on. Frankly, I never realized how temperamental tomatoes were. On Long Island, I never considered that. Oh, well, I guess that’s all part of learning. Hope you have a bountiful harvest!
Great post! I’m done growing tomatoes. Too much drama for something that often succumbs to disease/weather/ rodents. I just go to the farmers market, instead. But it is wonderful to pull a warm tomato out of the garden and eat it with dinner. Good luck with the new variety. 🙂
Hi Casa. If this Everglades variety fails, I’ll hold off on planting any other tomatoes until November. They are a lot of work!
Did you say Saharan dust? Oh my but I’d like to know more about that! I think growing tomatoes is far more complex than people are generally led to believe. I have had a vegetable garden of some size most of my life, and yet in the last several years I haven’t been at all thrilled with my tomatoes. This year, with the drought that everyone is probably sick and tired of hearing about, tomatoes just didn’t make a bit of sense. I miss the drama! 🙂 The extremes of weather and temperature shifts are so unsettling when you’re growing produce. Keep at it, though, and it can be so rewarding. i’m still praying for rain for next year, and at the same time a little terrified to think what would happen if we have Texas-sized rain! I would love to have a home-grown tomato, though, that’s for sure. 🙂
Hi Debra. Yes, Saharan dust. On the forecast, the weather graphic shows a beige bubble moving across the Caribbean and over Florida. Winds pick up the dust from Africa and carry it here. What it delivers is hot weather, hazy skies, and colorful sunsets. It is pretty amazing. I don’t think people should get tired of hearing of the drought. It could happen to any one of us — and adaptations have to be made. Gardening changes. Priorities change. Life changes. I also hope you get a gentle soaking rain and that a home-grown tomato will be in your future.
I’ve had good luck with the Super Sweet 100 variety. They are small but heavy producers. I usually buy seedlings in November/December. Tomatoes are grown November – April in south Florida.
MARY! Thanks for the advice. You’ve been on my mind a lot lately, especially as I learn the gardening ins and outs in zone 10. Hope all is well with you and that you’re enjoying your retirement. 🙂
Hi there I’m a Fort Myers native that has recently retired and moved up north for cooler weather to Lakeland hahaha start your tomatoes in September.
Hi Joanne. I think I’m going to try that this year — but those iguanas are always hungry! Bundle up… it’s a chilly January! 🙂