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Time for Tomatoes

By Mariko Kawaguchi

For me, the summer season in the garden revolves around that ultimate holy grail of fruits, the perfect vine ripe tomato. Having a pristine heirloom tomato in ones garden remains a source of pride and growers will proudly display them like a trophy before savoring their sumptuous and delicate fruit. I remember first growing tomatoes in an alley in the city when I was ten, and I have spent much of my adult life trying to at least match the flavor of those I grew. A trip to Italy years ago was a revelation to me, when I discovered that the spindliest and most homely looking tomato plants produced the most delicious and flavorful fruit. I was astonished to see the flimsy looking leaves next to the lush tomatoes, and came to the revelation that it was all about the alkaline soil in Italy, as well as the fastidious habits of the local gardeners, who remove the “sucker” growths of the leaves on the plants. Vineyard soil is acidic, and calcium and potassium should be added to improve the taste of your tomato. Being in a humid environment, we are also easily susceptible to bacterial and fungal problems and blight, so placing the tomatoes in a spot with strong full sun and good air circulation will lessen the problems related to excess moisture. Not unlike the infamous fisherman’s tale of the one that “got away,” green thumbs have similar laments and tomato war stories of crows, blights, tomato worms and fungi. Thank goodness for the local farmers market and the arena of seasoned tomato gladiators of Island farms who make it easier for the rest of us.

We depend on the taste of tomatoes as a flavor profile of summer; whether in salads, in gazpacho, grilled as part of a kebab, and perhaps most importantly for some, a sandwich with perfect fresh bread, mayonnaise and a ripe tomato.

Tomatoes are the number one vegetable garden plant that people grow, and are loved for their many shapes and sizes, from the micro cherry tomatoes, to striped varieties, pear shapes, to the huge beefsteak tomatoes that everyone tries to outdo their friends and neighbors with size, and visions of grandeur for the upcoming Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. While there is certainly friendly competition in summer amongst Island tomato enthusiasts, there is also a helpful community of Island gardeners many are willing to share plants and seeds, offer helpful advice and encouragement for neophyte tomato growers. Tomato cages, wooden stakes, hanging baskets and raised beds are but a few of the ways I have experimented with growing tomatoes, and everyone has their favorite method. It is important to keep the vines free and clear from debris and decaying leaves, and to be careful with watering, preferably in the morning, and never at night. Be vigilant for caterpillars, slugs and other creatures that can wreak havoc on your beloved tomato in no time. There are many safe and natural products on the market to help with these pests. Use your local garden center as a resource for the ever changing aides to combat fungi, pests and nutrient deficiencies.