There are no tomatoes like Jersey tomatoes
Our first house in Fanwood, New Jersey was on a street called Shady Lane. It was anything but shady. There were very few trees around our 1950’s Cape Cod, the former site of one of the countless farms that were sold to suburban developers. The one advantage of living in a neighborhood that was once farmland: great soil.
“You have to dig a trench and plant your tomatoes horizontally to encourage the roots and make your plant less leggy,” my mom instructed as I planted my first garden. My mom was raised in an apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, but knew all there was to know about tomato gardening from her tiny yard in Staten Island.
So I planted my first tomato plants. Jersey Big Boys and a few plants of cherry tomatoes. The support cages I surrounded them with were so tall it gave my neighbor, a chain-smoking retired firefighter, chuckle with skepticism.
“You really think they will get that big?”
But they did. Each night after work, I would come home to find new flowers on the plants that continued to grow and stretch inside their cages. Thanks to that soil and constant New Jersey sun.
The sun was merciless that summer. In fact, New Jersey in 1998 was under a severe drought alert and temperatures reached 90 and above. Every night, after my husband and I bathed our kids, I would haul out the bathwater, one bucket at a time, to water my tomatoes. By the end of the summer, I had baskets of tomatoes to enjoy with my neighbors, who weren’t laughing at my puny tomato plants anymore. I brought in bags of cherry tomatoes to snack on in my office in Manhattan and left some in the break room for my co-workers to enjoy.
Contrast this with my garden in Rochester. My neighborhood: home to 80-year-old towering sun-sucking Sugar Maples. Unlike the loamy beautiful soil of New Jersey, my Brighton neighborhood is the site of a former brick yard. You guessed it: thick, clay soil.
I love trees. I have — no had – 10 trees surrounding my property. But with only an average of 165 sunny days in Rochester, and a huge pine tree standing in the way between my vegetable garden and the sun after 3 p.m., I did the unconscionable. I cut down that tree. I wanted those red tomatoes that badly. Even so, my vegetable garden in Rochester, will never be so kissed by the sun as the ones back in New Jersey. The threat of frost lasts until mid-may. Days of clouds and rain cause blossom rot and blight. Last year, we received so much rain that if my tomato plants could dream, they dreamt of a sunny hillside somewhere in Italy. Or New Jersey.
Only this summer did I witness what other sun-starved Brighton neighbors did to achieve that perfect, sun-ripened tomato: for $25, they reserved a plot of land in the town’s community garden. On a tract of land that used to be a farm. More on this community garden in a future post.