It is an established and generally believed fact on the Coast that if you want to grow tomatoes, you need a greenhouse. Should you dare to establish tomato plants outside, all hell will break loose. It is possible there may be a tomato riot. If you’re inland, perhaps you have the facilities to attempt outdoor growing, but you need to be really inland, not just kind of off the Coast. We learn this growing up at the knees of gardening parents, or in the scathing condemnations people let loose in the supermarket when hearing that someone, somewhere, is being unwise enough to attempt to grow tomatoes on the Coast.
No one has ever really explained to me what will happen. I’ve come up with a few imaginative scenarios, some of which involve Cthulu, but I suspect these are not, strictly speaking, accurate. It seems more probable that you just get a disappointing yield, a frustrating turn of events after nurturing tomato plants and babying them along for weeks, months. Tomatoes take a lot of water and they’re awfully fussy what with their need for trellising and so forth. Once bitten by a lack of performance in the tomato department, many people are twice shy. Besides, they’re inherently suspicious. They are nightshades, after all.
Several years ago, my father risked condemnation and mockery and decided to try growing some tomatoes outside. My father lives less than a mile from the ocean, close enough that when there is even the smallest hint of a marine layer, his house is swaddled in clammy greyness. This was back before half the trees around his house fell down in a windstorm, so his house was also fairly shady. Neither of these things make for prime tomato territory, especially when you combine them with the proliferation of gophers at the Smith, Sr. residence. I don’t know if it’s the soil conditions or what, but his house is like Club Med for gophers. I practically expect to see them ordering drinks poolside.
He planted a few small tomato plants in the bed under the kitchen window, and I looked at them politely and murmured and poked the soil, like you do, verifying that yes, in fact, it does have a little compost and it smells dark and earthy and has a good texture. But, privately, I wondered whether we would need to stage an intervention, because no one, and I mean no one, grows tomatoes outdoors. We live in that climate cusp where we can grow a pretty wide variety of things, but temperate climates do have limits, and ours appears to draw the line at tomatoes. You just don’t go there. With tomatoes. You don’t.
Each time we talked on the phone, he would tell me I needed to come look at the tomatoes, and I nodded and agreed, like you do, and asked him how they were growing and he said they were ‘doing well’ and I’d raise an eyebrow skeptically. Maybe he heard my forehead scrunching up over the line because he’d always say ‘you didn’t think I could do it, did you!’ and I thought, well, they haven’t even started flowering yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The disappointment is always coming, because tomatoes cannot survive in the vagaries of coastal weather. A few soggy, dripping days, and it will be all over. A fun experiment, and then we can throw the vines on the compost heap and there might still be enough time to plant something practical, like zucchini.
But they kept growing. And then they flowered. A tiny profusion of little yellow flowers, with that distinctive tomato scent I have difficulty describing to anyone who has not interacted with a tomato plant on a warm day. It’s a little heavy and green and slightly dusty and it smells intoxicatingly delicious. But many things can go wrong between flower and fruit, and I maintained my dubious stance on the tomatoes. You do not quiver with giddy expectations when they might not fertilize, when the gophers might come and yank the plants underground, when anything might happen. I’d check the leaves for spots and mold, surreptitiously, knowing that the downfall of the tomatoes was coming.
Tiny fruits appeared. Little green balls, growing larger day by day, swelling on the vine, flushing with yellow, starting to develop streaks of red. They were cherry tomatoes, I remember, so they didn’t get very big, but they got big enough, so swelled with juices that some cracked and split before my father could get them off the vine. You can eat a split tomato. In fact, I highly recommend it, they have a concentrated fruity sweetness that must be tasted to be believed, layers of that delicious tomato flavour, the whole reason why people say fresh, homegrown tomatoes are incomparable to what you find in the store.
He got a massive yield that year. Soon both our houses were overflowing with tomatoes and he was giving them away to friends who would say they didn’t know he had built a greenhouse, and he would smugly say that he grew them outside, and no one believed him. They would come out to the house and gawk at the tomato plants, not so little anymore, laden with fruit and still exploding with ripeness. Eventually the plants started to die back and the vines withered but bright, determined tomatoes lingered. A few turned pulpy and dropped off before we got to them but most of them, we ate, on late salads.
My father never grew tomatoes again. I don’t know why. I think perhaps he needed to prove something to himself, and once he’d done it, he didn’t need to belabour the point.