The Tao of Tomatoes

Carol Deppe knows we want tomatoes. “And you want them earlier,” she says, “and you want the most delicious varieties, and you want different kinds and colors.” Deppe, who lives in Corvallis, is a plant breeder, farmer and author. Her book The Resilient Gardener, published in 2010, catapulted her to prominence as an events speaker. Her talks at the Good Earth Home Show in Eugene are always among the best attended. People like her down-to-earth attitude and low-key presentations (no PowerPoint, not even slides) and the fascinating, original material she comes up with. She speaks and writes from deep, thoughtful experience.

The Resilient Gardener dealt with easy-to-grow staple crops such as potatoes, beans and squash. Now Deppe has published another brilliant, quirky book titled The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy and Serenity. If you grow vegetables, or hope to, you need this book. Early chapters begin with passages, in her own translation, from the Tao Te Ching and explore Taoist principles as they relate to gardening. Chapters on specific vegetables follow. Tomatoes come first. Deppe loves to eat tomatoes in great quantities. Maybe that’s why, in a talk about tomatoes at this winter’s Good Earth Home Show, she began with harvesting. I had no idea I’d learn so much. Deppe has clearly given tomatoes a lot of thought, even by her own mind-boggling standards.

Don’t harvest tomatoes in the morning, Deppe advises. They won’t taste very good because they lose sugar during the cool night hours, and taste better after the sun hits them. And don’t refrigerate tomatoes, either: According to Deppe, you’re better off picking tomatoes just short of ripe and letting them ripen in the kitchen. That’s the best solution in bad weather, she says. 

Don’t stack tomatoes on top of each other, because it bruises them and creates off-flavors. Harvest them directly into flat boxes, in a single layer. Do you have a splitting problem? Irrigation will split any fruit that’s close to ripe. She suggests that before you irrigate, you pick any tomatoes that are within three days of ripeness. At the end of the season, any tomatoes already turning orange can be cut and put in a cool garage, to be ripened in a warm kitchen as required.

Next, Deppe addressed the really crucial question: choosing which varieties to grow. Personal taste is obviously a factor, but first there are practical considerations. To begin with, the varieties you choose must be early enough and cold-tolerant enough to succeed in our climate. Even in a good summer, our night temperatures are on the low side for a tomato. Everyone should grow a reliable early variety, Deppe says, if only as a hedge against that really lousy summer when nothing else may ripen. Deppe’s choice for an early tomato is Stupice, a small fruit with a “full, rich flavor.” It ripens even earlier than cherry tomatoes, she says, and even has some shade tolerance. 

When it comes to big tomatoes, Deppe likes the Kapuler strain of Amish Paste (she sells the seed). It’s a large, relatively early paste variety that’s also good for eating fresh. Another staple is Providence Purple, which is similar to the popular heirloom Brandywine but earlier. Brandywine is pretty late, she says, and does not suit our climate. Tomatoes, of course, are not just red anymore, and Deppe maintains that everyone should grow different colors “because they all taste different.” Among so-called black tomatoes, she suggests Black Krim. Black varieties retain some chlorophyll as they develop, which may make them extra tasty. 

What about cultivation? If you are buying plants, buy from a local grower. Don’t buy starts from big box stores — there have been late blight problems with plants raised in Florida. Smaller plants are better than big ones — they suffer less set-back at transplant. Remember to harden off your starts for a few days before you plant, exposing them gradually to cool outside temperatures. Take off any flowers and fruit, and remove suckers and lower leaves. Plant them on their sides in a shallow trench (with the tops raised, of course!) so the roots are not way down in cold soil. Then try to keep the soil constantly moist. A mulch will help with that.

There’s so much more. If you want to know why Deppe isn’t into grafted tomatoes, how to tell when your weird-colored tomatoes are ripe, why you should care about late blight or what indeterminate varieties are and why they taste better, you’ll have to read the book.