This isn’t about sustainability or going off-grid or striking back at The Man. This is about wanting a goddamn BLT and knowing, just knowing, that every tomato at the grocery store, no matter how shiny and heavy and beautifully red, is going to be a mealy, watery, flavorless piece of crap.
BLTs also have bacon, of course, and bacon is delicious, but what makes the BLT is the tomato. No amount of crispy bacon and fresh lettuce is ever going to make up for just some standard-ass grocery-store tomato.
Maybe you think a top-notch BLT isn’t reason enough to grow your own tomatoes, but here are some things to consider: If you haven’t had a garden-fresh tomato, you almost do not know what a tomato is; a BLT (or tomato sandwich) made with a ripe, garden-fresh tomato is the kind of thing that will make you weep tears of joy while eating and tears of real sadness once it’s all finished; growing your own tomatoes is ridiculously, laughably simple. You barely have to do anything at all. Follow the steps below and you’ll be able to raise up some bangin’-ass tomatoes pretty much anywhere.
Ignore All The Comments. Seriously, every tomato truther in existence is gonna be well-actually’ing every single syllable of this thing down there at the bottom. Those people are idiots. I know these steps work because I have done them myself. If you follow them, you will have delicious tomatoes. If you read the comments, you will have a headache.
Get Yourself A Pot. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy—a cubic-foot-sized crate will be perfect. If you’ve got a big plastic storage bin that’s around, say, eight inches deep and at least a foot by a foot wide, you’re gold. You just want your container to be able to hold around a cubic foot of soil. I suppose you could even grow these tomatoes in the overturned lid of a charcoal grill, now that I think about it.
Make Some Holes In Your Pot. Some crates will be full of holes. Plastic storage bins will need a couple fresh holes in the bottom, so get to stabbing with a screwdriver or ice pick or drill. Your overturned grill lid will have vent holes. (If you are growing tomatoes in an overturned grill lid, you are awesome.)
If you’re using a crate (or any container with very big holes all over that will prevent it from holding soil), you’ll need to line the sides and bottom (or wherever the very big holes are) with some pieces of cardboard, or some black landscaping fabric, or several layers of newspaper, or an old T-shirt or towel. Something that will retain the soil while allowing some moisture to escape.
Fancy Up Your Container. Eventually, you’re going to be planting a tomato bush or vine in this thing, and in either case, the growing plant is gonna become a pain in the ass in no time if you don’t spend a few minutes giving it something to grab onto as it grows. Out in a garden— where you’ve got deep, packed soil around your plant—you can just stake a long piece of wood down in there and do fine. With your slumdog potted deal, you’ll need to be a little more creative.
You know those cheap mounted shelves you had in college, where you attached a couple of metal runners to your wall and then mounted wedge-shaped shelf supports into the pre-drilled holes? All you need here is the pole part. Go to IKEA or Home Depot or Lowe’s or wherever, get to the shelf area, and buy a single metal shelf pole.
Alternately, a sturdy wood pole or, hell, a sturdy wood branch will do, as long as it’s about four feet long and straight. Sturdy is the key word, here. I’ve used lengths of rebar bought cheap from Home Depot—those worked beautifully.
Now, using screws or nails or duct tape, affix that pole to the outside of one side of your container. If you’re using a crate, just hold the pole against the side of it and wrap duct tape around the whole damn thing. It’s not going anywhere. Bam. Done.
If you’re using a grill lid, I mean, you are a goddamn hero. Send photos.
Make Soil. What you want is nutrient-rich soil that holds lots of water at every layer, so your tomato plant will have lots of healthy roots and all kinds of good plant food around it. This isn’t about sustainability—again, it’s about eating a damn BLT—but we’ll nod in the direction of sustainability here.
For the nutrient-rich part, grab yourself a bag of compost. You can make your own, but unless you’re interested in buying a compost bin and filling it with food waste—or happen to live in a place with a fair amount of outdoor space—this is going to be unpleasant and inconvenient. It will be easier to go to a garden store or Home Depot and buy a bag. Do that. They even sell little bags of compost designed specifically for growing tomatoes. If you find something like that, bully for you. If not, just regular-ass compost will do the job.
For the water-retention part, a lot of different soil recipes will have you combining peat moss with something like vermiculite (which is a little mineral pellet that holds moisture and keeps the soil from compacting too much). Peat moss is the end product of a process that kills and strips a peat bog of its vegetation. I’ve never seen a peat bog—I assume all bogs are haunted by the spirits of fallen Norse warriors—but science assures me they’re valuable and threatened ecosystems. If peat moss were an essential soil ingredient here, I’d be telling you “screw the bogs,” but there’s other stuff we can use that won’t wipe out the home of vengeful warrior spirits. Get yourself two or three bricks of something called coir, or coconut peat. It’s the ground-up husks of coconuts, and it performs about the same as the peat moss-vermiculite combo. It’s a little more expensive than peat moss, but since you’re using it to replace two soil components, you’re coming out close to even.
Mix up roughly equal parts compost and coco peat in your container until it’s mostly full. Go ahead and get it wet, so it’ll be ready to host a tomato plant. There. You’ve got soil.
Get Yourself A Tomato Plant. There are tons of different kinds of tomatoes; what you really want is a tomato plant that grows well in your particular climate. The easiest way to find such a thing will be to go to a garden store or farm stand where they sell tomato plants and ask someone what kind of tomato grows around these parts. Here are some tomatoes I’ve grown successfully in Northern Virginia: Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Golden Sweet, Brandywine, and Black Brandywine. The Golden Sweets are a little smaller than the rest. The Green Zebras are green and on the small side, but they’re goddamn delicious. Any of these tomatoes should do just fine wherever you are.
Select one single tomato plant. Your little tomato plant should have no tomatoes growing on it, and should be green and healthy-looking. Buy this little healthy dude anytime in spring or early summer, and take him straight home.
Plant Him In His New Dirt Home. First, use your hands to make a hole in your soil mix. Then gently pull homeboy and his little delicate root structure and clumped soil out of his little plastic carrier. Holding him in one hand, use your other hand to gently, gently loosen his roots. This will be equal parts squeezing and pulling on the outside of the root clump, just enough that it seems to gain a little sag. If, upon pulling your plant from the plastic container, the root structure looks like a cylinder or cube of dirt tightly wrapped in a sheet of tiny roots, go ahead and, using a pair of scissors, cut through and break up the outer layer of roots in three or four places around the outside.
Now, stuff my dude down in the hole until the top of his root clump is about a half-inch below the level of your soil, and then use your hands to spread your soil evenly across the entire top layer, a nice cap of compost and coco peat. Gently shake your pot to settle everything.
Your Plant Is Thirsty! It’s Been A Rough Day! Use your hands to form a little depression right around the base of your plant. Pour a cup or so of room-temperature water directly into this little depression, being careful to keep the leaves of the plant dry. Ah. A nice big drink of water.
Put Your Plant In The Sun. Wait! No. Do not hurl your little tomato plant into the sun. Tomatoes, like most other fruit, do their best growing in full, hot sunlight. If you’ve got a yard, find the sunniest place in it and set your plant there. If you’ve got a balcony, as long as it gets a long stretch of summer sunlight each day, that’ll work. If it doesn’t, or if all you’ve got is a stoop, set your plant on the stoop. If your stoop gets no sunlight, access the roof of your building. If you can’t access the roof, find a sunny spot within a block or so of your house, plop your plant down there, and hope for the best.
We’re just trying to avoid a situation where you need a UV lamp to grow a sad-ass indoor tomato plant, here. Maybe you’ve got a friend in your town who has a yard or a sunny stoop. Maybe there’s a community garden within a reasonable distance of your home. Maybe your workplace has an accessible roof. Maybe your ex-girlfriend’s workplace has an accessible roof. You’re looking for an outdoor place that gets plenty of direct sunlight during the day. If you spend a few minutes thinking about this, you will come up with something, and the tomatoes will make the exercise worthwhile.
Water Your Plant Often. You can take a few days off from watering your plant if it rains—or if it’s grey and drizzly and shitty for a day—but otherwise, water it as close to once per day as you can. Once summertime fully arrives and daily temperatures are reliably near or above 90 degrees, you’ll want to spread a layer of mulch over the top layer of soil around your plant, so the heat and sunlight won’t dry up the soil. If buying mulch is too much of a pain in the ass, think how much more annoying it’ll be to water your tomato plant twice as often. Mulch retains water and protects the soil from intense heat. You won’t need more than a few handfuls. Swipe some from some neighbor’s garden one day, if it comes to that. Take a Ziploc freezer bag to the nearest park, find where some annuals have been planted, and steal mulch, you degenerate.
Maintain Your Plant. This is easy. Pick off any brown leaves with your fingers. As your plant grows, use twist-ties or string or tape to hang it on your pole, so that it doesn’t bend under its own weight. This will become especially important as tomatoes start to grow on there—you don’t want your delicious tomatoes resting on the soil, where the moisture will cause rot. Feel free to get creative, if need be—I used bent wire clothes hangers to make little branch supports when my stupid flimsy wooden stake broke under the weight of a particularly vigorous tomato bush last summer, and it worked fine.
Once little tomatoes start to show up on your plant, scale back the watering. Drier soil will concentrate your tomatoes’ flavors, whereas tons of water will, yes, water down your tomatoes. You want to water a lot early on so your plant develops a lot of big green leaves, which capture sunlight and magically convert it into sugars. Once the tomatoes are maturing, though, cut back on the water. You’ll get a tastier tomato.
Even if you’re a deadbeat piece-of-crap tomato-plant owner, your plant will mostly do its thing without you. If you forget to hang it on the pole, it’ll still grow tomatoes. If you forget to water it, it’ll grow as much as it can from rain alone. If you check in on it once a week, pull off dead-looking parts, tie it here and there to the support, pour some water into the little depression right around its base, and say nice things to it, it’ll reward you in the second half of summer with a regular harvest of ridiculously tasty tomatoes.
Make salads! Slice your tomatoes and eat them with fresh mozzarella! Make sandwiches! Make a goddamn BLT! Stand next to your tomato plant after work one afternoon and eat sweet, tangy, delicious, ripe tomatoes like apples, with juice and tomato seeds running down your forearm, because that is the best. Hurl any overripe tomatoes at any bombing standup comics who happen to be performing nearby.
This is easy stuff. Once you figure it out, you’ll have a hard time buying grocery-store tomatoes ever again. Your friends will marvel at your green thumb. Everyone will think you’re a cool urban farmer or a dipshit cutie-pie DIY hipster asshole, but neither of those things will be true. You’ll still be the same stumbling goober as before; you’ll just have regular handfuls of amazing produce and the best goddamn BLTs a man ever ate. Maybe you will even have grown your tomatoes in a goddamn grill lid. That would be cool as hell.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Vice Sports and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll.
Art by Sam Woolley.
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