The good gardener accedes to what nature allows or demands

Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

“You like tomato and I like tomahto” is how a line in the old Gershwin brothers song goes but, pronunciations aside, all a good gardener cares about is seeing a slice of a big fat red juicy tomato, with a touch of salt and mayo, spread across a slice of white bread.

It’s a summer thing in the Northeast that I put atop the gardening experience which includes, of course, growing the big fat red juicy things in the first place. Good gardeners are drawn to the process like moths to a flame.

But good gardeners never rush, gardening is a delicate art that requires novice and aficionado alike to find out all that’s known to produce the best-tasting tomato there is.

I always say, if you go to Webster’s, right under “tomato” you’ll find a picture of a good gardener showing off a gem that defines “tomato-taste.”

I know gardeners who make fun of the homeowner who says, “Well, I guess I’ll throw a few tomatoes in this year” but good gardeners welcome anyone into the fold who plants something in the earth and cares for it till fruition. And tomato-loving gardeners are a genus of moth who take to the flame with abandon.

Every year for many years I start tomato seeds indoors on St. Patrick’s Day in hard plastic trays whose cells I fill with the best potting soil available.

I love the day because it’s the beginning of the gardening season, but I rue it as well because I must father those seeds, help them sprout and, when they reach a certain size, set them in pots so their roots can spread.

When the seedlings are ready to go outside, I put them in the sun for an hour then bring them back in. The next day it’s an hour and a half, and after a week, two hours, then longer in mottled shade until the strips can withstand June’s blaze without their leaves turning white from sunburn.

That is, the good gardener accedes to what nature allows or demands. Acclimating the plants to the sun — called hardening off — is a tomato’s sun-tan lotion.

Because of my dedication to tomatoes over the years, I sometimes feature myself a Johnny Tomatoseed, but Double-A at best because I’ve met Babe Ruth Tomatoseed and Willie Mays Tomatoseed.

They didn’t say so directly but I learned from them that the good gardener’s relationship with the tomato (as with every fruit and vegetable) is an act of health: food-health, mental-health, physical health: gardening rearranges the emotions, it’s an epistemological revolution; the good gardener is a seer.

I’m forever upset that wine drinkers can describe the taste of a merlot with the nouns and verbs of poetry. The same is true for olive oil: floral, grassy, robust, polyphenols, are all part of the patois. Such chauvinism might seem chi-chi but, as with the tomato, people want to know what a fruit really tastes like, the gift nature intended — tomato qua tomato, the Standard of Perfection.

In every seed catalogue I come across, the owners of the company try to provide an accurate description of each variety they sell. There are thousands.

No company wants to be seen as a three-card-monte grifter in its sales pitch. They say what science says: The biology of genetics but also the biology of the tongue, the gustatorial judge of that big fat red juicy slice (maybe with salt and mayo) as it slides into the mouth.

That is, with their window-shoppers the catalogue-makers are sharing what the tongues on the street are saying. A few hyperbolize but there’s never a need for caveat emptor.

If I were to use the old man-on-the-street-interview technique — with respect to a tomato — I’d say to the next guy who comes along, “Sir, we’d like you to try this tomato and say in your own words what you think. What are your nouns and verbs? A little salt and mayo maybe?”

The catalogues describe a variety’s sweetness and acidity, how the plant responds to diseases, and how many rosy red jewels to expect in a season. (Some varieties are stingy despite the love.)

A phrase often used with tomatoes — and good gardeners listen — is “old-fashioned flavor” referring to the way tomatoes tasted before agribusiness butted in. Old-fashioned-flavor is a dog-whistle good gardeners can translate.

For example, page 10 of the 2021 Tomato Growers Supply Company’s seed catalogue says of the “Rutgers” — a lost treasure now back in favor — that gardeners everywhere are “rediscovering this old-fashioned classic for its terrific flavor and productivity.”

It says the “Rutgers” is “bright red,” disease-resistant; its skin doesn’t crack when it rains; and has that “delicious old-time taste.”

Old-time-taste means old-fashioned-flavor, which means the taste of the tomato on the vine or a few hours later spread across a slice of white.

On page 6, Tomato Growers describes the “Abraham Lincoln” as “old-time” with a “fair amount of acid  … nicely tempered with sweetness” and “packed with great tomato flavor.”

I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of such descriptions over the years but I’d like to introduce you to — to stay with the idiom — the Willie Mays of tomatoes: the “Dester’s Amish.”

There’s a story behind how I got the seeds from Missouri farmer, Larry Pierce, who told me in an email once that “Dester’s Amish” was the greatest tomato he tasted in 50 years.

What a dog whistle.

I got the seeds, I planted them, and every year I share strong “Dester’s” seedlings with family and friends; I turned on the tomato-guru, the late Carolyn Male, to “Dester’s” which is saying something.

A local better-than-good gardener, Don Meacham, told me “Dester’s Amish” is his Willie Mays.

I went wow, when Willie first came up in ’51, when few knew who he was, after a game I walked across the Polo Grounds parking lot beside him, then up a steep flight of stairs (110) that led to Edgecombe Avenue as my father waited below.

I have to agree with my gardening neighbor: “Dester’s Amish” is Willie Mays. How many get to have two heroes in a lifetime?

And there’s still time to get to the ballpark.