Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Great Tomato Challenge

It’s almost the middle of May and the heat has clicked on, warming my slippered feet.  The giant chestnut trees are a curtain of big fan-like leaves against the uniformly grey sky.  A chickadee pauses on the fence for a moment, his chevron crown bright white.   As he flies off, he reminds me that spring is already half over and my tomatoes are not yet in the ground.  Like gangly teenagers, their roots crowded into their little pots, they reach for the sun that isn’t there.  In the cool Pacific Northwest, the day after Mother’s Day is usually consistently warm enough to put tomato starts in the ground.  But this year may be different.  The local weatherman has warned to not even consider such a daring move until the end of May—if even then!
But I can’t wait.  The asparagus has begun to send up its fat green fingers and the rhubarb leaves are robust atop their blood-red stalks.  I’m picking lettuce and spinach and arugula as all the leafy greens crowd together in their neat rows, daring the slugs to come nibble on the tender shoots.   
I thought maybe Joe could put together some kind of hoop arrangement to keep the tomato plants warmer through what appears to become a very cool summer.  I went to our local hardware store to price the different parts that might work.  It all seemed to be getting very complicated, this attempt to grow tomatoes where there never seems to be enough sun or warmth.  But if there is any fruit that can make me swoon with passionate joy, it would have to be the tomato.  I have never been without a tomato garden—even a patio plant or two can be enough to carry me through the summer, at least.
What could be better than picking the “Sweet Million” right off the vine and popping it in my mouth like a juicy red grape?  Or how about sliced tomatoes with a little salt and olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar?  Add a fresh basil leaf, a slice of fresh mozzarella for a classic summer salad.  One of the varieties I got is called “Siberia”, another is “Black Krim”.  If these can grow in Russia, certainly they will be happy in our cool climate.  Even so, a tomato, like me, needs sun and warmth.
We have three twelve foot lengths of PVC pipe left over from some plumbing project.  That should work well to erect the roof of the “hoop house”.  A very nice young man at the hardware store walked me through the process for building this thing.
“You can use these elbows, at forty cents apiece, to make the curve of the roof.  Your husband will have to cut the piping to the right lengths and then connect the pieces with the elbows.”  He continued, “Then, he can anchor each end in a can filled with sand, with a hole in its lid to keep the pipe stable.  We have the cans here, for about $5.00, I think.  The whole project might not cost more than about $40.00 since you already have the pipe and the sand.”  He could see that I was concerned about price.  He gave me his card so that he could explain the process to Joe (maybe he thought this was too arcane for my female mind to comprehend?).
But I could see that this project could take a bit of time to actually put together.  I was as impatient as my sprouting tomatoes.  Suddenly, I had an idea—at least for an immediate, if temporary solution.  I went to the local dry cleaners in our shopping center.
“Do you think I might be able to beg, borrow or buy about ten of your cleaning bags?” I asked the pretty young woman at the counter.  She seemed definitely puzzled by my request.
“I don’t know,” she hesitated.  “What do you want them for?  What are you doing with them?”
“It’s to cover my tomato plants to protect them from the cold.”
“I’ll have to ask the owner…” she walked to the back of the store and returned with a diminutive older woman.
“You want some bags?  Why do you need so many?  You need ten bags?  What are you doing with them?” 
I explained again that it was to protect my tomato plants from the cold.
She pulled the ten bags from the fat reel behind her.  “You can have these—but you have to give me some tomatoes when they grow!” she laughed at the idea.
“I will be so happy to do that,” I said.  “I’ll give you a big basket of them!”
I went home very pleased with myself, the bags wadded up in the front seat of my car.  I would plant the tomatoes in the ground, give them a nice boost of alfalfa pellets, put their sturdy wire cage around them—and drape the cleaning bag over the cage to keep them warm at night, and warmer in the daytime, protected from the cool breeze.  Meantime, Joe would build the hoop house and they could be sheltered from cold all summer long.  The clear Visqueen sheeting over the hoops would allow the sun to warm the plants.
I went on line and Googled “hoop house” and got a step by step instruction guide—a little different from what the nice young man at Ace Hardware told me, but just as simple.  This would be something Joe could visualize—and build for me.  I printed the instructions for him.
“We could make this a lot bigger than what you were thinking of,” he said.  “I can prepare a much bigger bed for you.  And it doesn’t look as if it would be an expensive deal to put together.”
Of course, I was thrilled to hear that he had not only caught the vision but was willing to take it a step further.  In addition, we could probably disassemble and move the hoop house to another location in the garden next year, since I try to rotate them from place to place every season.
See how well this little project turned out!


  1. Necessity is the mother of invention .... And your optimism is what got the wheels turning ...... Most people wouldn't even try (like us!) especially with the chilliness outside!!

  2. It's not just the optimism that is so inpiring but the determination and tenacity with which you approach a seemingly impossible project!