Forbidden fruit

When we lived in southern New England, we used to grow those big, honking tomatoes people think of when they think “tomato” — classic old-time varieties like Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine and German Pink. The kind you can bring in from the garden, carve a hefty slab off of, lay on a nice slice of bread with some basil and horseradish sauce, and then just step back and admire, saying to yourself with virile satisfaction, “Boy, now THAT’S a tomato!”

You really can’t do that with a cherry tomato or even a nice plum tomato. Sure, you can appreciate a plum tomato’s firm, smooth, meaty texture when you’re slicing it to make sun-dried tomatoes, and you can pull a cherry tomato off the vine and pop it into your mouth and go, “Gosh, that is really sweet-tasting!” But those diminutive types just don’t have the animal magnetism you find in the big boys.

The dark side of this, of course, is how gross and disgusting the big ones can be when they get hit by late blight. Cherry tomatoes (and, to a lesser extent, plum tomatoes) will often go the whole season without being troubled by this disease, which can turn a healthy, prolific Brandywine into a 90-lb weakling in a matter of days. The first two summers I was here, I tried growing some of the many varieties of open-pollinated, sandwich-sized, old-timey tomatoes that I’d grown in Rhode Island. Alas, they all succumbed to late blight. After two years of grief, I just threw in the towel, resigning myself to a life without real tomatoes fresh from my garden.

Late blight is a fungal disease that likes relatively cool nights, warm days and a generally moist environment — in other words, pretty typical conditions here in WNC. The disease starts out as irregular, greenish-black patches on the lower leaves and quickly spreads until the whole plant looks as if it’s been hit by frost. It’s a pretty discouraging sight. The fog that often settles on our valleys creates a perfect environment for blight to proliferate. And the final blow is often careless watering that allows the plant’s leaves to get needlessly wet — causing slightly infected plants to race to the finish line of ultimate destruction.

Late blight is not to be confused with early blight, a common garden disease that’s not nearly as destructive. Early blight primarily strikes leaves, though it can also rot the stem end of fruit. It begins as little brown spots on the lower leaves that soon run together to create larger patches and eventually cause the leaves to turn brown and drop off the plant. The disease spreads upward on the tomato plant at a considerably slower rate than late blight. And despite the loss of leaves, an affected plant can keep on producing fruit, though the tomatoes will be smaller and more susceptible to sunscald.

A couple of years ago, I was at Dr. John Wilson’s house in Black Mountain in the early fall, checking out his garden. There’d been a couple of frosts already, but Dr. John still had big, meaty, sandwich-sized tomatoes ripening, and there wasn’t a sign of late blight to be seen. He had several plants growing inside a simple contraption — a frame made of upright posts sticking 6 feet out of the ground, connected to horizontal pieces at the top to form a box frame over the beds. It was covered with clear 6-mil, construction-grade plastic that had been in place since the tomato plants were planted. It was wide enough to provide plenty of room for the big plants, which were tied up to sturdy stakes. The ends had been kept open all summer, but once the mercury started dropping, they were buttoned down to extend the growing season.

Dr. Wilson told me that late blight could be kept at bay if the leaves stayed dry and the plants were in a warm environment. The big box supplied the extra warmth; it also kept the leaves completely dry. The plants were watered with a drip hose that had been laid under a thick layer of straw mulch when the transplants were installed in late spring. Because this contraption doubled as a season-extender, Dr. Wilson had been able to plant earlier than usual, so his plants had been producing significantly longer than most folks’ tomatoes. And these were real tomatoes, not those fifi cherry tomatoes I’d been raising at Jardin Fou all summer long. I didn’t immediately do anything about it, but it did set me thinking.

Then, when I was at the Herb Festival a few weeks back, I picked up several plum-tomato plants for our annual crop of sun-dried stock, plus a supersweet cherry variety for eating in salads and right off the vine. I also bought a couple of Brandywines and a Cherokee Purple — both sandwich-type tomatoes. After five or six years, I was ready to take the plunge again.

I have the joy of owning a small (14 feet by 20 feet), unheated, Quonset-style greenhouse that has three raised beds for growing crops directly in the ground. As soon as I got home, I planted the cherry and plum tomatoes outside, installing the others in the greenhouse’s central bed (the farthest from the rain that comes in the side vents, left open all summer). Already, the plants are looking darn healthy, and they’ve easily survived the freak frost that zapped the outside plants last week. I have set up drip hoses for watering, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Maybe by late July I’ll be eating real tomato sandwiches.

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