Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes taste as different as they look.

I got into a smackdown with an older, more experienced gardener over who grows the tastiest tomatoes. And I got owned. Totally owned.

A little background: Close gardening friends gauge my horticultural skills on tomatoes.

Those of you who love hanging your face over the sink to bite into juicy fruits hot off the vine, or know that some ‘maters are firm and make better slicers for sandwiches than juicier others, and those of you who prefer one with an acidic bite over a sweeter variety, already know a lot of what I am about to write.

And for the most part, I fail at growing America’s favorite vegetable miserably. I’ve tried every trick in every book. Vine types, bush types, in-ground or containers and raised beds with the right soil mix, light feeding, adding extra calcium, watering right (every few days, not every day), and none seem to matter.

Some years are OK, some not so good. So I remain a “book expert” who can’t walk the walk. Ought to wear a button that says, “Take my advice — I’m not using it!”

Anyway, for years I had been talking informally with a gentleman at a local watering hole, and he kept giving me advice on how he grows his ripe tomatoes.

“Slag, lots of basic slag,” he would say. Slag is a kind of fast-acting, non-burning lime that helps reduce blossom end rot.

By the way, using crushed eggshells for garden calcium doesn’t work. Really. Wrong kind of calcium, needs to break down over years in acidic soil, or stirred with a little vinegar to fizz them into the kind of calcium plants can actually absorb.

Anyway, the next year my container-grown plants produced like crazy. Some of the fruits cracked open when I watered too much, but for the most part they were pretty and juicy. The old guy had put me onto something.

But then I started bragging, which led to a challenge, which led to a tomato tasting at the pub. And I got a public humiliation.

I tried blaming my loss on the fact that some of the judges were drinking light beer, so what kind of taste do they have anyway?

As you know, no two people have the same taste. And there are hundreds of different varieties of tomatoes in all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors — to get an idea, check out a few online heirloom tomato seed sources, such as SeedSavers.org, and look at the photos and read the descriptions. It’s mind-boggling. And don’t even get started on the same thing with heirloom peppers.

Anyway, the judges agreed that while mine were fine, they favored the acidic “bite” of his over the sweetness of my chosen variety. It was as if I used Miracle Whip instead of regular mayonnaise.

But I was beginning to wonder if my tomato guru had been holding back on his tomato-growing advice, if age and guile actually were overcoming youth and exuberance.

Come to find out from his ratting-out friends who knew all along, his were actually grown in his backyard — but they were tended almost entirely by the woman next door who didn’t have room for a garden of her own.

No matter. His won fair and square.

Next year, I’ve got a plan. Instead of competing over the early fruits, I’m planting tomatoes in July so they can grow better plants in the heat and make better fruits in the cooler fall.

Next couple of weeks is the time for planting fall tomatoes, if you can still find plants.

Meanwhile, bring on the slag!

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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