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Northwest Tomatoes

You have to be a little crazy to try to grow tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest. It’s obvious that the plants evolved in the tropics somewhere, not in the rain-drenched Northwest. They demand much more heat and a longer growing season than we average here. It’s equally obvious that I could buy excellent greenhouse tomatoes much cheaper and with much less fuss than raising my own tomatoes.

In a bad year, all you can hope for is a few green tomatoes before they become blighted and rot. In a good year, and generally this has been a good year, the tomatoes begin to ripen before the fall rains arrive. Even in a good year like this, there are more green tomatoes left on the vine then ripe ones that have already been picked when the rains begin. And itâs hard for a frugal man to look at good tomatoes rotting on the vines.

Despite this, I’ve been attempting to grow tomatoes as long as I can remember. I’ve never owned a house without a garden, and I have never had a garden without tomatoes.

The real question is why I continue to grow them despite the frustration and expense.

Perhaps it’s because when I was a child my father attempted to grow tomatoes in Seattle, an area even less adapted to tomatoes than Vancouver, Washington. So, I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to have a garden without tomatoes. And corn. And cucumbers.

Over the years I’ve developed a real taste for fried green tomatoes. They are my ultimate comfort food. They were a steady part of our family’s diet in late summer and fall. My fondest memory in Vietnam was a mess sergeant who turned a shipment of green tomatoes into a feast not to be forgotten. Needless to say, green tomatoes are nearly impossible to find in supermarkets full of red, rock-hard, tasteless tomatoes grown in Mexico or Peru.

And, like many of my generation, I really don’t feel entirely secure unless I have a cupboard full of food, particularly canned tomatoes. Going without a few meals in your life gives you a real respect for a full larder.

Despite the advances in hydroponics, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as going out to the garden in the evening and picking a fresh tomato for dinner. So, perhaps as behavioral psychologists argue, intermittent rewards are the most effective.

Perhaps, though, I simply refuse to give in to nature’s whims. Maybe I grow tomatoes precisely because they are so difficult to grow. Each year I pick out four or five varieties to start from seed and begin growing them in early March. I pick out the best of these seedlings and plant them in various parts of my garden, looking for the ideal blend of soil, heat, and light, always trying to avoid planting them where I have planted them the year before.

Maybe I grow them because I am just plain stubborn.