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Garden in the City: The Quest For The Perfect Tomato

LINCOLN SQUARE — I don't talk aloud to my plants, but I do communicate with them telepathically.

To my tomato plants, I have this to convey: "No pressure dudes, but you better rock my world."

When I finally bite into a ripened fruit — still some weeks off — my mouth better explode with flavors the likes of which I've never experienced before.

Because that's what I've been promised by proponents of the whole "eat local, eat seasonal" movement.

According to these folks, those perfectly round, perfectly colored and perfectly bland fruits grown by Big Agriculture are not tomatoes. Barry Estabrook, a former staffer at the now defunct Gourmet magazine, has even penned an entire book on the subject — Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

You're welcome to read all 220 pages or just know this: The stacks of tomatoes found in supermarkets have been bred not for flavor but to survive the trip north from the growing fields of Florida with as little damage as possible.

If you want to know what the Aztecs were tasting back in 700 A.D., you're going to have to grow your own.

I am normally neutral about tomatoes — I frankly could take them or leave them — but with Estabrook and his ilk dangling the notion of "real" tomato flavor in front of my taste buds, how could I not include the plants in my garden?

My crop in 2012 was beyond underwhelming. The cherry tomatoes were fun to pop in my mouth fresh off the stem but that's scant praise for a harvest that otherwise did not leave Heinz shaking in its boots. I'm willing to overlook those results, largely because gardening in 2012 was a bit like taking one's first boat ride aboard the Titanic.

But there will be no excuses in 2013.

To give my tomatoes the best possible chance of knocking my socks off, I actually did a bit of research into achieving tomato nirvana. Pruning, according to a Martha Stewart-approved farmer, apparently is key.

It seems counter-intuitive to chop off healthy plant growth, but that's what pretty much every tomato expert advises. The goal is to prevent disease and allow more light and air flow, while also directing the plant's energy toward growing fruit, not leaves.

I gotta say, I was stoked. I'm something of a serial pruner — once I start snipping, I can't stop. I think it's because, apart from watering, gardening is a fairly passive sport. Pruning is like being called off the bench to pinch hit in the World Series — finally a chance to get in on the action, and I fully intended to make the most of my at-bat.

The trick is identifying what to prune — specifically the growth known as "suckers," which sprout up in the "V" between a plant's main stem and its side branches.

Even with helpful photos available online, when confronted with a living, breathing tomato plant, I found myself debating "sucker" or "not sucker." I opted to err on the side of hacking away at anything that seemed remotely superfluous, bidding the growth farewell with a "so long sucker" as I clamped down with my pruning shears.

So, Mr. Tomato Plant, I've done my part. The rest is up to you, and I'm expecting nothing short of awesomeness.

To follow my gardens' progress between columns, check out my Tumblr blog at http://gardensinthecity.tumblr.com. Note the plural "s" in gardens — I'll be posting photos of my nonedible flower beds, too.