Heirloom Eruption

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I knew this moment was coming. I knew it. Every morning and every evening as I surveyed the four heirloom tomato beds, I knew those plants were going to literally explode with so much production that Venus and I couldn't possibly handle the entire load.

Yeah, it exploded alright.

The signs came early this year. You could see it. Heirloom fruit forming on tomato plants barely a foot high? Plants literally jumping out of the garden beds? Surprise formations of tomatoes? Surprise plants? Volunteer plants springing up out of hard clay hardpan, loaded with tomatoes?

The picture to your left is the result. And that's not all. There were two more harvests just like the one to your left this past weekend. It was time. The tomatoes had to come off NOW. And it was more -- far far more -- than I ever expected.

I hope and pray that every heirloom grower gets to experience the type of year that Venus and I are enjoying now. I'll be honest. It's been a long wait for us. Heirloom tomato plants are tricky creatures indeed. They'll give and give and give one year -- then break your heart into tiny pieces the next. What grows like a weed one year -- suddenly won't grow at all the following year.

Yeah, heirlooms are like that.

But it's well worth it when you have harvests like the one to your right. I can't even begin to tell you how many pounds of ripe heirloom tomatoes we harvested last weekend. I can tell you that most of the production came from just 16 of our 38 plants that are located in two out of the four beds currently planted with tomatoes. They were the first two beds that Venus and I planted in early April. And they nearly died of shock that first week because Bill Bird got a little, umm, too excited with fertilization (yes, you can overdo it).

While harvesting an heirloom tomato plant like Druzba, Cosmonaut Volkov, Lemon Boy and so many others can be an exhiliarating experience, it's also frustrating and tiring. Why? Because you can only see what is on the outside of the tomato plant in question. It's only when you pick those ripened outside tomatoes, do you get a glance of the inside.

What a glance. If we picked one tomato, we spotted two more. Not a problem. But -- after picking those next two -- you came to discover that they were hiding four more ripened tomatoes. And when you picked those four? More ripened tomatoes.

Get the idea? It's work! And with every ripened tomato harvested comes this simple question:

"What am I going to do with all of these?"

Of course, you want to document the "special tomatoes." That one-pound Brandywine to your left? Check! Never grown anything that size before. What about that odd-shaped Zapotec Pleated bent at a crazy 90-degree angle? Check! And that Campbell's 1327 which appears to have some sort of pencil-like creature growing out of the side?

Venus liked that one. Suffice to say, I'll say no more on this subject.

The wife and I started canning on a large scale effort last year when the garden produced a bumper crop of late fall tomatoes. I imagine that this year's plantings will probably produce a bumper crop as well, if this July harvest is any indication. But we were well prepared this time. We even went so far as to purchase a 16-quart pot from Bed, Bath and Beyond for our upcoming canning efforts.

The canning projects in question: Our famous and always in demand "Roasted Garlic and Heirloom Tomato Salsa" and whole tomatoes for winter cooking projects. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of popping open a jar of your own heirloom tomatoes during the DEAD of winter -- and having that freshly-harvested heirloom tomato smell smack you right in the nostrils.

That's exactly what you get with home canning efforts. From pickles to tomatoes -- there's just something special about opening a jar of something that you and the wife grew from seed the previous gardening season. I suppose you could call it a strange sort of satisfaction, but there's also something more.

I know that my mother -- at one time -- used to can garden produce and fruit from backyard gardens and fruit trees. She had all but abandoned the practice by the time I grew into childhood. A single mother of four children had no time for such activities. So -- while I never witnessed Mom canning so much as a pea -- I do have the memory of a canning jar filled with peaches sitting on a garage shelf for several years.

That jar -- like many childhood memories -- would eventually get tossed. But it was my brother Andy who confirmed that mother -- at one time -- was a champion canner. But -- times changed in the sixties. Home-canning was on the outs. Why can something you can already buy pre-packaged or canned at your neighborhood grocery store? Why put up with the hassle?

There are times -- and I'm sure I'm not alone in this feeling -- when I wish that mother could see what Venus and I are doing. I wish she could see the pots of boiling tomatoes on the stove. I wish she could see the time-saving routines and working together spirit that the wife and I have cultivated. Would she approve of this? I'm not sure. She might -- but then again -- she's not here.

I know -- for a fact -- that mom would enjoy the end product. Mom was a sucker for good salsa -- and our salsa -- while we haven't entered it in any contests -- always gets rave reviews.

A champion harvest results in champion salsa and other canned goodies. That's 15-pints of salsa in that photo to your left. Not only does it contain home grown heirloom tomatoes -- but home-grown peppers -- home grown onions -- home grown garlic and home-grown spices. Nearly everything in those pint jars -- with the exception of the salt and lemon juice -- came straight out of the backyard.

The salsa and quarts of canned tomatoes represents the first major canning project involving tomatoes this year. I say the "first" because other plants holding different varieties of heirlooms are now just beginning to turn. The wife and I will be back on the job soon -- guaranteed.

1 comment:

Jenn's Cooking Garden! said...

Enjoy all those Tomatoe's! Been getting alot myself. Althought I am growing 2 Brandywine Plants and no friut at all. Just beautiful lush green plants! Right now there is 2 flowers on one plant and none on the other! Ive never grown Heirlooms before. I will continue to wait to taste a Brandywine!