Put Your Roots Down

Growing great heirloom tomatoes at home requires starting with great tomato plants.

Soda Rock Farms Heirloom Tomatoes
Soda Rock Farms, Late Summer Edition

I’m calling it: tomato season is on. Not for eating, mind you – that’s still a solid month or two out, persnickety kiss of the summer sun dependent – but for planting. I’m touchy about this because my tomato-growing career has been about as inspiring as David Hasselhoff’s empty-pool swan dive into the music business.

It might be that I’m a slow learner. I’d like to think that slow learners would also be gradual learners, that the rate at which we assimilate knowledge might be in some sense proportional to the time it takes for the process to complete, and that I’d figure it out as I went along. You might think that too, but unfortunately, we’d both be wrong. No, by far the more common experience consists of long, futile periods of floundering, punctuated by the occasional, if profound, moment of clarity, in which the spurious drone dies down, cause and effect delineate, and logical patterns finally emerge.

Certainly, that has been my experience, as applicable to high school calculus or professional management as tomatoes, and watching my youngest daughter learn to ride a bicycle, I wonder if that isn’t the same pattern, too: when you learn to ride a bike, Isaac Newton’s in charge, and he says that you are either riding the thing, or you are falling down. Whether my daughter’s scrapes and bruises represent an inherited flaw or an immutable law of human nature remains an open question, but ultimately makes no difference: the important thing, the only thing – and this, I have learned, is at least as true of growing tomatoes as it is of basic physics – is simply to get it.

I know, I’m meandering, and I’m sorry; I promised a post on growing tomatoes, and said post you shall have. The climate zone (14) in which I live should, by all rights, be tomato mecca: cool nights and mornings, lots of sunshine during the day, great soils, all in all a welcoming home to most Mediterranean plants. So, each May for several years, I dutifully plant a few tomato seedlings – classic beefsteaks for burgers, Romas for sauce, yadda yadda yadda. And in each of those years, I’ve grown mediocre tomatoes. Like, really mediocre, as in, often not worth eating.

To add insult to injury, the best tomatoes I have ever in my life eaten grow just across the valley from me, by Dan Magnuson of Soda Rock Farms, so you’d think the odds were stacked my way. But the years go by; each successive crop as fundamentally disappointing as its predecessor; I run downtown to buy tomatoes from Dan; I learn nothing.

So last year, finally, I tried something different: I spent a little more money and bought the best rootstock I could, from the guy that I know, with absolute certainty, grows great tomatoes – I bought big, beautiful, heirloom tomato seedlings from Dan the Man. You might think that that was an obvious solution and you may well be right; but you’d be forgetting that I’m a slow and episodic learner. And last year, as any resident of the (707) will recall, was awful for growing fruit, as bad as it has ever been; unusually cool and excessively foggy, Sonoma County in 2010 was like Mark Twain’s summer in San Francisco. But despite all of that, lo and behold, miracle of miracles, my tomatoes rocked. They weren’t just good, they are frigging awesome. I still get excited when I think about the first crop to ripen – a gorgeous Purple Cherokee, followed by Lemon Boys, and finally a chartreuse avalanche of little Green Zebras – and the way our whole garden bed just smelled like ripe tomato.

Like I said, I’m a slow learner, but I occasionally get there in the end – I’m pretty sure the moral of the story is, the quality of your rootstock matters. This may not, exactly, be news; it certainly doesn’t strike me as particularly insightful. And yet, for years, despite all the accumulating evidence, I persisted in my belief that all this sunshine, all this great soil, would inevitably produce great tomatoes, and I went on planting mediocre seedlings, with predictably mediocre results. So my suggestion is, do what I finally did: go see Dan, and don’t think too hard.

This year, when I paint my masterpiece, surely things will be different. Right?