By Peter Sporleder | Special to Moonshine Ink
I am a longtime resident of the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. For the past six years, I have eaten only locally grown tomatoes; I mean locally grown as in about 10 feet from my kitchen door. Admittedly, some come from a more distant location — maybe 60 feet away. I took a break from growing tomatoes in 2020, mostly because of having to put up 81 quarts of tomato purée from 2019’s harvest of 260 pounds — and from having a loaded freezer. But I was back at it this season with my harvest again exceeding 200 pounds.
I had more than a passing interest in gardening as a youngster in Southern California. At 10, I was growing a variety of vegetables — radishes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, squash. The hobby was curtailed by busy high school life and employment. Years later, although working toward a teaching credential and various employments at the irregular, erratic schedule of adult (college/university) education, I again “turned the dirt.” One summer was so productive I bought only a few things from the store: condiments, dairy, sauces, dressings, and the like. The deluge of garden produce continued well into October.
The strings of life pulled me away from gardening for many years, especially my move to Tahoe. When I acquired permanent residence, I shoved a shovel into the dirt, followed by a variety of seeds. Most sprouted … and that’s about all they did, getting nothing more than a few inches tall. A couple years of that and I quit. I concluded the best things to grow at Tahoe were pine trees and dandelions.
Years later, unable to quench that hunger to garden, and taking note of an especially sunny/warm spot (by Tahoe standards) that was previously unexplored, I gave it another shot. I bought seeds and tomato plants at the local nursery, confirming multiple times, “These are large tomatoes, right? Like beefsteak, slicing, salad tomatoes?” The attendant assured me they would be huuuuge.
They were cherry tomatoes.
However, the fact that I got a couple of handfuls from eight plants that grew to a few feet high astounded me. They were surrounded by midget lettuce, Swiss chard, onion, radish, carrot, and non-producing squash. I subsequently applied science to my renewed interest. I began investigating my yard’s micro-environments, testing various tomato varieties, trying various plant sources, and developing helpful plant growth and management techniques.
Over several seasons I worked seven plots of ground around my house, now whittled down to just the two most productive. I experienced varieties that did everything from die to produce 8 pounds on a plant. The purchase cost per plant has dropped from about $4 to 10 cents. (That 10-cent variety now requires coaxing seeds to sprout, then babysitting them in-house for several weeks until they’re of planting size and the weather conditions cooperate.) Harvests have grown from a handful to consistently over 200 pounds.
My tomato growing endeavor has resulted in this: I have tomatoes year-round and they are 100% organic. There is not one molecule of introduced commercial fertilizer, insecticide, pesticide, fungicide, growth hormone, etc. Disclaimer: All my store-bought produce scraps go to the garden and those are not always organic. The most pollution my tomatoes experience is dust, easily removed with a quick rinse.
I grow tomatoes because I can. It’s great to be successful at something, and I found one, teeny weeny little spot in the universe where I can enjoy success. It has taken a lot of time and a good deal of work to reach this level. As an aside, if you’ve ever wondered if farmers market products are worth it … yes! This is not advertising for my tomatoes — they aren’t for sale.
Another result of voluptuous tomato production is the invasion of hundreds of tomatoes each fall in virtually every room in my house. Were you to visit me after the first hard frost, you would not find a bed available to sleep on, a desk to work at, a table to eat at. Wash your clothes at the laundry mat; my washer’s busy — as a nice flat area to incubate tomatoes because, for several reasons, I get few vine-ripened tomatoes; they reliably morph from green to delectable red in two to three weeks. Sorry, no cold beers in the fridge — it’s occupied by tomatoes awaiting pureéification. I put plywood on sawhorses in a room to house a colony of tomatoes, engaged in their magical color-changing act.
As any gardener knows, serious growing encompasses more than the growing period of the summer months. Fall nudges me to prepare the ground for the next year; spring asks me if I’ve ordered plants (now seeds); imminent summer pushes me to finalize soil preparation and resource assessment — auto watering system, trellising, ties, etc.; approaching fall importunes … clear the counters, beds, tables, desks, shelves, appliance tops, and refrigerator for incoming harvest, and calculate canning jar need.