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First Tomato a Total Bust, but Ice-Licking Dog Makes Up For It

Here's a nice specimen; mine was rotten.

Yesterday I picked my First Tomato, which was nice and red but lying on the ground, so I knew it wouldn’t be any good. Tomatoes need to hang from the vine or they rot. I took it inside because I wanted to see what happened to it.

It’s a law here in Indiana that any thief who picks your First Tomato may be cheerfully shot with total impunity. But even the Tomato Gang wasn’t interested in this one.

You don’t think there’s a Tomato Gang? You don’t live in Indiana. We all belong to the Tomato Gang (and we’re thieves).

I brought it inside and sliced into it. The bottom half was rotten because it lay on the ground. But the top wasn’t much better, very woody, not juicy at all. I put it in the compost box.

Let’s get this clear, shall we? Tomatoes are supposed to be juicy, and I couldn’t care less if this does not meet the needs of McDonald’s, Burger King and Hardee’s. They don’t like juicy tomatoes, which drip on your skirt while you’re driving up I-65.

Those things are tasteless, which fast food specializes in. Don’t eat in your gol-dang car, hokay? That skirt never did much for you anyway.

Tomatoes, like oranges, exist for the juice. That’s where the flavor is. Never, ever buy a tomato hybrid designed for fast food chains.

Would you want to eat a dry orange that was all meat and no juice? Then why would you design a tomato that way?

It’s not my fault that people like to put tomatoes on their burgers and not oranges. (They’re both very rich in Vitamin C.) If you’re going to eat a burger Be Prepared. It’s called a napkin; you can do it.

My First Tomato was a total bust. I wasn’t that sad, I’ve got a lot more ‘maters on the way; the timing (practically the 4th of July) vindicates my decision to plant tomatoes early and wait to see if the frost got them, which it didn’t. Replacement vines would only have cost a buck or two, so I learned something this year. My tomatoes look like a rainforest, while my next door neighbor’s got these spindly pathetic things.

I’d have eaten part of the First Tomato if it hadn’t been so woody, but I threw it all away. (“Woody” is when the green part of the vine extends down into the flesh. It’s inedible, the whole thing is deformed.)

It was a hot day, and once I cut into it and saw it was worthless, I began to be concerned about my dog. Luke spends most of his time outside on a 30-foot lead, and it’s been hot here, our first hot dry spell of the season. He so likes the sunshine that I worry about how he eats and drinks. When we wake up in the morning he’s never interested in breakfast, he only wants outside, and it’s not because he’s desperate to pee; he takes forever to do that. What he wants is the sun, so I pour out food and water as he clamors to go outdoors. I take him out, and bring him back later, and sometimes he eats or drinks like I want him to. Sometimes he doesn’t, he just wants back outside.

I’ve tried taking his chow-and-water dish outdoors so he can feed when he wants to, but ants got into it and that was a mistake. In the morning I offer him food and water, but he’s not interested, so we go outside and play, and later I bring him back in case he’s hungry or thirsty. Then clamor clamor clamor, jump and turn in circles, “Outside!” Okay, dude.

But it was hot out, and I’d already given him a second chance at the doggy dish, which he rejected, and I didn’t know what to do. I took him an ice cube.

He loved it.

I held it in my hand and he lick-lick-licked; when he got tired I rubbed it on his belly. But then he wanted to lick it again, so we did that. He paused and stood up, and I rubbed it on his back. He thought that was great. Then he licked it again; in a minute it was just a nub. I finally dropped it and he licked it on the grass until it disappeared.

It’s an amazing thing to have another creature eat out of your hand. He totally charms you, while you feel strong and protective and goofy.

Since he likes being out all day, but I can’t trust him to stay in our yard, I check on him all the time; he can’t say if he’s hungry or thirsty, I have to interpret the signs. I wish I were better at doggie-speak, but maybe we’re doing okay.

Luke ate an ice cube; highlight of my day.++

Luke, ice cube-licker. Prettyboy, little wuss, total favorite.

It’s Pansy Time!

Today, March 31, is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 83.

This is also Wednesday in Holy Week. Some years her birthday fell on Easter Sunday. (Some years my birthday is the Day of Pentecost.)

But today is also the day I planted tomatoes—far earlier than ever before.

The rule of thumb with tomatoes is that the safest time to plant is after the last possibility of frost has passed. Around here, that’s approximately Mother’s Day, the 2nd Sunday in May.

Pansies can be planted as soon as they appear in stores; they like cold weather. So mine are now in. I bought yellow ones this year for my planters on the front porch. I usually mix colors but not this year.

I fantasize that tomorrow the mailman will come by and think, “Well, he’s got his pansies in.” I imagine this every year, because I get such a kick out of planting my annual flowers. I want someone to notice them!

The lady across the street has a nice window box. I used to admire and envy it, until I realized she sticks in plastic flowers and calls it a day. No watering that way, I guess.

While I’m excited about the pansies, I’m really psyched about the tomatoes. They’re my favorite food, and nothing tastes better than a homegrown tomato. The ideal way to eat them is out in the garden with a salt shaker, and juice running down your chin.

I may lose this crop; there’s a reason the experts say to wait. When I bought this house six years ago in May and planted my first tomatoes, my friend Mark came down from Chicago to help with a couple of tasks, and told me he’d lost his tomato plants a few days earlier. Frost got them, of course. “What’s up with that?” he asked.

I was so eager to learn how to grow a tomato that I let my mind get spooked by what happened to his. So for the past five years I’ve faithfully waited until all danger was past.

I have now repealed that law, for several reasons. First, the eight plants I stuck in the ground today cost me all of $2.78. If I have to replace them I won’t go bankrupt, so it’s time I got over my anxiety. Second, last year’s experience was not good. We had a cool, wet summer and the tomatoes took forever to ripen; I didn’t get any till August, and mine were earlier than some of my neighbors’.

Third, my pal Peter visited me in May last year, and helped stake up my plants. I felt terrible about it, because I started later than normal; he’s from Amsterdam, and I would so have liked to be able to feed him some of my own produce. God knows he’s heard me rave about my tomatoes this whole time. But there we were, trying to coax along a few forlorn-looking plants that he wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy unless he stayed all summer. He did get to eat some local sweet corn, and marveled that here in the exotic Midwest, we actually eat it off the cob! He probably included this bizarre factoid when he inflicted his Travels in America slide show on his parents once he got home. “What’s next,” they must have wondered, “do they wear grass skirts?”

The bottom line for me is this. As soon as Murphy’s has plants for sale, buy them and stick them in the ground. I may lose a few but so what; God made more. The gardening industry knows when to put plants on sale for a particular market; doubtless Wal-Mart has elaborate data on when to offer what at all ten gazillion stores.

Since I am going to spend every day this spring and summer checking to see if I’ve got a tomato yet, I want my juicies sooner, not later. (I’m not sophisticated enough to do grow-lights in the basement, the way the hardcore tomato people do. And I can’t afford to build a greenhouse off the kitchen.)

It was 78º today in Chicago; we may have hit 80 here, the ideal temperature for planting. Yes, it will get colder, but I’ll keep my eye peeled for frost warnings and buy a newspaper to cover up my crop. It’s worth the risk.

Tomatoes are one of the best foods a person can eat. Here are some nutrition facts from learninginfo.org.

The tomato not only thrills the taste buds and brightens the dinner table, it also helps fight disease.

A review of 72 different studies showed consistently that the more tomatoes and tomato products people eat, the lower their risks of many different kinds of cancer. The secret may lie in lycopene, the chemical that makes tomatoes red, said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the studies he reviewed, 57 showed that the more tomatoes one ate, the lower the risk of cancer. “The evidence for benefit was strongest for cancers of the prostate, lung, and stomach,” he reported.

Processed tomatoes (e.g. canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, ketchup) contain even more lycopene because cooking breaks down cell walls, releasing and concentrating carotenoids. Eating tomatoes with a small amount of fat enables lycopene to be better absorbed.

Even though eight plants is a lot for one person, there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes. I freeze them, I can them, I give them away; I can even sell my surplus back to Murphy’s. I could start my own farmer’s market!

My chives are coming back; I’ve harvested some already. The oregano is growing, too. Last week I planted onion sets as soon as I saw them at the grocery store. (Then I had to contend with my dog Luke, who naturally assumed that where I get to dig, he gets to dig too.)

My tulips, including some from Peter, are about 8 inches high; the crocuses are in bloom. The lilac bush is leafing out and will bloom in May. A few of the irises have sprouted, but they did very badly last year and I may have to replace them. The daylilies have new shoots. So far I can’t see any activity among the hostas, nor anything from the lilies-of-the-valley I planted last fall under the maple tree. But everything is coming along as it should; God, do I love spring.

And I haven’t even mentioned that the Butler Bulldogs are in the Final Four!

Butler's regional championship last week.

You know what I’m going to be doing Saturday, and it’s not thinking religious thoughts. The Easter Vigil begins at 6pm my time, but Butler tips off against Michigan State at 5:07. I’ll be going to church, all right, but not at Good Shepherd. Mass can wait until Sunday when there isn’t any basketball. I mean, first things first.++

Coach Brad Stevens of Butler.