The last patch of snow has finally melted off the lawn and the seed and plant catalogs are arriving in our mailbox daily. Having been disappointed over the years by bare-root perennials ordered from catalogs, I prefer going to nurseries to see plants up close and for real before buying them.
But I’m still really attracted to the tomatoes. Those luscious catalog pictures of Early Girls and Big Boys awaken me to the fact that, at last, spring and summer are coming. I can’t grow tomatoes here, though. It’s way too shady, with too many animals. I did try one summer, on the deck, our only sunny spot. Cherry tomatoes and green and purple basil, in pots. The verdict: buy vegetables at the farm stand and put papyrus and caladiums in the pots.
It wasn’t that way when I first started gardening, in 1979. All I cared about then was growing stuff my friends and I could eat. It started at the share house in East Hampton. I was the new kid voted in, that spring when we had long lines at gas stations and Jimmy Carter in cardigans. I was happy anyway. I had an old VW fastback, yellow, with a quirky transmission; $300 in cash for a half-share in a shingled, rose-wallpapered farmhouse on Springs Fireplace Road; $150 for a half-share at the tennis club—and the opportunity to meet men who liked the beach, tennis, and possibly, meals cooked with freshly picked vegetables.
Before the season started, my housemate Lorraine Harner and I sat down with the Burpee catalog. She was the expert and I was learning about gardening (my experience keeping hanging baskets of grape ivy and wandering jew alive in my studio apartment didn’t count). The house had an established vegetable garden, and Lorraine knew all about roto-tilling, making furrows, and getting people to help with the weeding. We scrutinized the pages together and picked out a dozen varieties of lettuce, two or three kinds of zucchini and yellow crookneck squash, bush beans, peppers, French radishes, melons, kohlrabi, chard, scallions, arugula (it was the hot new thing then), various other herbs, and about six kinds of tomatoes, including yellow and orange varieties. Lorraine also ordered marigolds. They’re smelly, she said, and they’ll keep the rabbits away.
The seeds arrived in little brown packets (disappointed, I’d expected colorful seed packages with paintings of the vegetables). We planted on Memorial Day weekend, and the garden didn’t disappoint. Everything thrived out there, and even without a fence the rabbits let it be. Lorraine was right about the marigolds. Sixteen people shared the house—teachers, shrinks, social workers, lawyers, and one graphic designer, me. All of us put in a few hours gardening during our every-other-weekends. Friday afternoons, we’d park our cars and go out back first thing to see what was happening in the garden. It had grown some more! All by itself! People would weed in the early morning before tennis or in the late afternoon after the beach. One guy picked bugs off squash leaves in the middle of the night by flashlight. Everyone gathered vegetables for salads. The landlady wanted us to admire her hydrangeas and impatiens, but we were so smitten with the fruits of our labors we couldn’t care less about flowers. No produce from the IGA or farm stands for us, except for potatoes, corn and peaches… stuff from the big growers. In August, with our suppers of barbequed chicken and burgers, there were platters of the best red sliced tomatoes and mounds of sautéed zucchini, Julia Child style, with garlic, breadcrumbs and fresh herbs.
It was a most delicious and magical summer. I still have a snapshot of myself, shovel and hoe in hand, in my bikini, and a picture of the group before one of our parties, in our hippie garb and long hair.
After the official season was over, I spent a few days at the house with my mother, who was visiting from California. We wore old sweaters and walked around the nearly deserted streets of East Hampton Village (this was way before Trina Turk and Michael Kors were there). The now-abandoned vegetable garden was a lesson in the short lifecycle of living things: crumbled brown and yellow leaves on the ground; the remaining lettuces bolted and gone to seed; huge seedy squashes with tangled stems all out of control. Hidden behind decaying melon leaves were tomato bushes sagging under the weight of bright orange fruits we’d completely forgotten about. They were weird, off-putting tomatoes, looking more like persimmons. I picked one and took a bite. Wow. Wow. There has never, in the history of the world, been a tomato flavor like that. Deep and rich and juicy and earthy. That weekend, Mom and I ate them sliced and baked and in salads and on sandwiches. We took them home to neighbors in my apartment building. I left the rest in a crate at the side of Springs Fireplace Road for anyone driving by to take.
These days, the “heirloom” orange tomatoes that are the rage at fancy supermarkets are expensive, watery and tasteless. The stem tomatoes they sell everywhere started off promising but usually aren’t worth buying. That tomato was like the lost chord. I keep looking for it—or something as good as it—tasting and photographing tomatoes wherever I go.