It has been about a month and a half since I last wrote about the Office Tomato and it’s about time for a good news/bad news update.
The good news is that I returned from a 10-day trip to Thailand to two ripe tomatoes and a third that is very nearly there. I feel lucky to have made it this far and was equally impressed that our friend and house-sitter, David, was able to keep the plant alive, especially since the weather has been unseasonably cold and grey.
The bad news is that the reign of Office Tomato is coming to an end.
I had hoped that the plant would be able to hold on long enough to make it outdoors, but with another months or so to go before tomato planting time, it is clear that a quiet retirement soaking up the sun in the fresh air is not going to be a reality for Office Tomato. The hard work of producing fruit indoors in an inadequate lighting situation is taxing all of the plant’s resources — it is literally on its last legs.
But first, let me backtrack:
I took this photo on March 26, just before heading off to Milwaukee. Already I could see that Office Tomato’s days were numbered and that its health was on a downward slope. I observed that the leaves had begun to curl under and had lost their luster. They just weren’t as green as they should have been.
Back in January I introduced you to my office tomato, a mystery volunteer plant that I began nurturing for its delicious tomato leaf smell. Well, it looks like Mystery Tomato is about to offer up something else that is delicious — it’s making fruit!
Here is a photograph of my plant in the window it lives in, taken just this morning. The plant is over 2 feet tall now. I have steadily upgraded it into bigger pots as it has grown. It could have been taller, but I buried a large portion of the stem when I last upgraded it as a way to ensure a more stable root system. Its current pot is 9″ deep and 10″ wide at the top.
Surprisingly, the plant isn’t leggy. It’s growing in a south-facing window and it seems to be getting just enough light to keep it happy. Any less and I’d be concerned. One of the biggest challenges around growing tomatoes indoors through the winter is the lack of sunlight. For the most part, the sun isn’t bright enough and the days are too short. Tomatoes need a lot of sunlight to produce fruit. If you want to try growing your own, I’d recommend growing dwarf varieties that are less demanding and will fit underneath supplemental artificial lights. My plant is much too large for that so the most I can do is turn it regularly so that it receives an even amount of light on all sides, and hope for sunny days.
Those of us in the northeastern reaches of North America are something like just past the halfway mark to spring. The days are getting longer, and even though I am thoroughly discouraged by endless applications of boots and layers of heavy clothing, there is some hope. Spring is within a reasonably foreseeable future. There are times when it feels like I can almost touch it and smell it, and yesterday afternoon I realized that I can! It’s growing just behind my desk.
On Twitter, I mentioned the tomato plant I am growing in my office. I don’t know which variety it is as it came up as a volunteer in one of the houseplant pots that I must have put out on the roof last summer. It’s got to be one of the determinate varieties that I grew, but who’s to know? It’s a mystery. When it was sturdy enough, I carefully pulled the little seedling out of the soil it was sharing with an epiphytic cactus, no less, and gave it a new pot with more appropriate soil.
As of now, in the dead of winter, the variety isn’t important or worth speculating about. What matters is the smell, that beautiful, invigorating, strong tomato smell. It is probably the smell I miss most through the winter months.
I try to spend a few minutes with my plants each day, not just for their sake, but for my own. I keep many of the most aromatic and softly textured plants in my office where I have easy access to touching and smelling them. They keep me going.
I’ve always considered tomato a productive, workhorse plant that is grown with the expressed intention of producing an edible crop. But yesterday I realized that their usefulness goes above and beyond the food we put into our mouths.
When I mentioned my plant on Twitter, a few people chimed in immediately about the smell and how much they missed it. It’s still a bit early to start tomatoes in my area, and yet I’ve been enjoying mine for over a month already. It got me thinking that there is no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t grow a tomato plant indoors, in the off-season, for no other reason than our own pleasure. Even if we can’t provide it with a strong enough light that can take it all the way through to spring and a life outdoors where it will produce tomatoes… so what. Isn’t it worth growing for the smell alone?
That’s cheap therapy.
When it comes to dealing with an end of season garden glut I have one rule: everything roasted. I am yet to find a vegetable or fruit that doesn’t benefit from this treatment. I thought I’d tried it all and there were no more surprises left. I was wrong.
Last weekend I pulled out almost all of our tomato plants in all three gardens. I left in a few that had fruit that had some hope of developing a bit further before it gets too cold. There’s green tomatoes and there’s green tomatoes that are too green. I prefer to try and get them as developed as they can be before packing it in for the year. And before anyone mentions the hanging the plant upside down indoors trick; I simply don’t have the space. My neighbor tolerates a lot of my little gardening eccentricities in our shared hallway space: overwintering plants, bags of soil, stacks of terracotta pots, jars of tomato seeds…. For the record, he keeps a life-sized cutout of John Wayne in that same shared space. It was there a good month before I stopped suffering a miniature heart attack every time I walked into the hallway. For that reason alone I think we’re fairly even, but full-sized tomato plants hanging from the ceiling might be pushing things too far. I know where the boundaries of social decorum lie and I try to respect them. Most of the time.
But I digress. As I always do. Back to the tomatoes. In short, I have a lot of them and am in the process of making my famous green tomato chutney as I type this [ed. I wrote that a few days ago. The chutney is done and I have already given half of the jars away as gifts!). I did not intend to can them this year; I just don’t have the time. It’s funny how you can forget what 2 pounds of chopped tomatoes plus miscellaneous ingredients looks like until it is there in front of you. I had it in my head that I could just make it and stick it in jars in the fridge rather than canning. I do not have a fridge that big or the appetite to eat it all quickly enough. So canning it is.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), one batch does not take care of all of the green tomatoes I’ve harvested. What to do with the rest? I love fried green tomatoes, but that’s a lot of fried stuff. I’m spending an inordinate amount of time sitting on my ass these days. The only part of my body getting exercised are my typing fingers. I do not need to introduce several pounds of fried tomatoes to my digestive tract right now.
And then I remembered my glut rule: everything roasted. I adore roasted tomatoes but had never tried roasting green tomatoes. If green beans are delicious roasted with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt then surely green tomatoes would benefit from the same treatment?
In conclusion: they do and then some. It’s a revelation!
Instructions are simple:
This article and the accompanying recipes originally appeared in print in the Globe & Mail on September 5, 2009. I thought I’d repost it here today since the season is so ahead this year and my large, indeterminate tomato plants are on the verge of a first round of ripening. CAN NOT WAIT! If you’re in a warmer climate, you’re probably enjoying them already and wondering how to use up the extras that are quickly rotting in a bowl and breeding fruit flies on your kitchen counter.
Perhaps that was not the image I should have left you with. Now I am obsessing about my own bowl of small tomatoes and the fruit fly colony I am potentially raising as I write this.
[At which point I did get up to go inspect my bowl of fruit that was in fact housing one rotting tomato and a few fruit flies.]
The article below includes some brief canning instruction and three recipes: Gayla’s definitive green tomato chutney, Superior heirloom tomatoes, and Old-fashioned tomato ketchup.
If you’re itching to dive in further, I’ve included more detailed instructions in my book Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces, along with a few extra recipes.
The Ball and Bernardin (in Canada) books are highly regarded as the most popular tomes, but I have to admit that I find them a bit dull and have never made a single recipe from these books. I personally recommend Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone. Her writing is conversational and entertaining, and is written from the perspective of a New York apartment dweller with real-world ingredients and realistic, small-batch quantities. I do not have a copy nor have I read it, but someone brought a copy of Canning & Preserving with Ashley English to my spring canning class and on a quick flip-through it looked very thorough, inviting and engaging.
I’m practically writing another article here, but since I’m on the subject, there are three contemporary British canning books that I would also highly recommend: Jellies, Jams & Chutneys, Preserves (This is the copy I have but it is listing at $206!!), and Fruits of the Earth The recipes are a bit more unusual than the stuff I have found in American books, using ingredients and combinations I had never thought to try.