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Garden in the City: Tomatoes Gone Wild, Then Bust

By Patty Wetli | August 26, 2013 1:11pm

LINCOLN SQUARE — I get it people, you have tomatoes. Lots and lots of tomatoes.

This weekend, my Facebook feed exploded with status updates from "friends" bragging about their tomato harvests.

"Canned 30 quarts of tomatoes and salsa today ... whoop!" wrote one.

Me, I just harvested all five of my non-cherry tomatoes and cobbled together a Panzanella salad.

Whoop. De. Do.

Seems like just yesterday, or at least just a couple of weeks ago, that my tomato vines were outgrowing their cages and spilling over into the neighboring carrots, their limbs heavy with budding fruit. Here, finally, was the bumper crop every gardener I've ever known had promised me.

Gradually, so that I barely noticed at first, leaves started yellowing, and then entire stems. Flowers stopped appearing.

I pruned, perhaps too aggressively. I amped up my watering regimen, perhaps not enough. I added fertilizer and the infamous peat, perhaps too little and too late.

I've got a handful of cherry tomatoes still on life support, but my vines are otherwise done for.

I stalked adjacent plots looking for, I don't know, proof that I'm not the worst, most hopeless gardener ever. Few appeared to have suffered a collapse on par with mine, but I didn't come across a great many threats to Del Monte, Hunt's or Ragu either.

The folks that seemed to have fared the best, like the bed next door to ours, had, from what I could tell, given their vines ample room to grow, provided appropriate support and perhaps gone lighter on the pruning. Beyond that, I have no idea why my tomato crop was a comparative bust.

And I'm totally cool with that.

I mean, yes, I would love to brag on social media that my tomato haul was bigger than yours, but honestly, what was I going to do with all that fruit anyway? A single salad pretty much maxed out my culinary skills.

And what an exquisite salad it was.

What my tomatoes lacked in quantity they made up for in their gorgeous orange color and a fleshiness I've never witnessed in a store-bought variety — kind of more like a peach. Add in some freshly-snipped basil — which is finally growing gangbusters — and we were pretty excited even for just this one meal to be eating off the proverbial fat of the land.

"This should be your signature dish," said Dave, who suggested I bring Panzanella to every potluck and family gathering for the rest of our lives.

I reminded him that it had taken us all summer to grow the salad.

He reminded me that there are these things called grocery stores.

Well, yes, but that would be cheating. Or would it?

I logged onto Facebook later in the evening to discover an update to my canning nemesis' post. Turns out her harvest hadn't been so hot either. Those 30 quarts of tomatoes — bought at the farmers market.

My Panzanella is looking better and better.