This summer, my tomatoes measured up

The first year I judged a state tomato contest, my own tomatoes were a total flop. What in the world had I done wrong?

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    Heirloom tomatoes await tasting by judges in the 21st annual Massachusetts Tomato Contest, held in Boston last week.
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I've always felt that one of the best reasons for gardening is being able to grow tomatoes that taste so much better than anything you can buy. If I could raise only one vegetable, it would be tomatoes.

While it's fun to grow my own bell peppers, eggplant, or summer squash, I've found these vegetables at the local farmers' market often are just as tasty as mine.

Not so with tomatoes. Apologies to all farmers - I recognize my prejudice - but I've never bought a tomato that tasted nearly as delicious as one I'd grown myself. Those grown by me - or by my friends and neighbors - always have a natural sweetness combined with just the right acid "tang," which contrasts tellingly with the blandness of commercial tomatoes.

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So as my family and I have moved from city to town and state to state over the years, I've always managed to plant tomatoes.

Then we came to Boston and moved into an 1870s row house right in the city. What fun it will be to live here, I thought. And I was right - except for one thing. There's no space for a garden.

Fortunately, we have a nice brick patio out back that receives a reasonable amount of sunlight. I figured I could grow everything - flowers, small shrubs, vines, herbs, and veggies - in large attractive containers.

Well, I'd forgotten that it's hard to get gardening supplies - especially enough soil - in the city. And then there's the problem of what you do with heavy soil-filled pots in winter. But that's another story. Eventually our "potted garden" was a big success. Every year it grew bigger and more beautiful.

Until last summer, that is. The masses of flowers were lush and beautiful as usual. But the tomatoes were a total flop. The vines looked fine, but only a couple of tomatoes ripened, and those were watery - a huge disappointment. Summer just didn't seem complete without home-grown tomatoes. What went wrong, I wondered: Did I choose the wrong varieties for this area? Did I fertilize or water incorrectly? It was a puzzle.

My failure really hit home when I was asked to be one of the judges in the 20th annual Massachusetts tomato contest. Farmers from around the state enter tomatoes in three categories: slicing, cherry, and heirloom. Under a big tent, long tables are filled with plates of each type. I was one of the cherry tomato judges. As I bit into the first tiny orange ball, a grin spread across my face. Ah, that was what a tomato should taste like.

An hour later, I had sampled more than 100 little orbs, and my tomato hunger was satisfied for the first time that summer. It was wonderful.

As I was thinking about that experience this past spring, I drove to the suburbs and found some Sweet 100 tomato plants, a variety that has always been foolproof for me. They grew as if they were cousins of Jack's beanstalk.

In mid-August, as co-workers were reporting tomato crop failures, I was harvesting handfuls of Sweet 100s. We shook our heads and speculated over possible differences in the weather between the city and outlying areas.

Last week, when I again donned my tomato judge badge, I was in a better mood than last year. I knew the tomatoes wouldn't all taste finer than mine. In fact, I was a bit cocky: Would they be as good as mine?

They were, of course. Those tomato farmers are pros. But that night at home, as I snacked on some of my Sweet 100s while I fixed supper, I evaluated them according to the contest criteria. They were symmetrical and uniform in size, so I gave them 5 points out of 5 for shape. Since they were orange all over, they gained another 5 for exterior color. Firmness also earned a 5 because I didn't leave them on the vine until they were overripe.

So far, so good. But the toughest standard is flavor, and it counts the most - 10 points. "The perfect tomato should have a strong tomato taste, be slightly acidic, juicy, and fresh-tasting with a tender skin," the judges were instructed.

With all the objectivity of a mother evaluating her own baby in a "most beautiful" contest, I easily decided my tomatoes earned 10 points for flavor. Suddenly I didn't care if I had a real garden or not. I have a patio filled with beautiful blooms. And best of all, I can go out and pick ripe tomatoes every morning. That's enough.

Someday I expect to have "acreage" for a garden again and dozens of tomato plants instead of only a few.

But I'll never forget the summer that my tomatoes - without benefit of a garden - measured up to the best in Massachusetts -. at least in the very unofficial opinion of one judge.

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