You say Tomato, We say YUM!
What a piece of work is a tomato, how noble in its bounty, how infinite in its varieties.
Legendary coach Lee Cabutti grows acres of them, but you could simply do a hanging vine basket on your patio. Wait 'til Mother's Day to plant them, or live dangerously like the coach and start putting them in now.
If you follow the ways of the love apple, you will eat well, put off prostate cancer, thrill your neighbors and co-workers with your gifts — or just enjoy their scent and beauty under the summer sun.
Peel me a tomato
You want fresh tomatoes but don't have the space for a garden? As long as there's sun, you don't need much space.
"Probably the most exciting (tomato-related) thing this year is the patio tomato, such as a hanging basket," says Sandra Mason of University of Illinois Extension.
Reach up and grab a grape tomato as you dine. Or pick a couple from a window box.
The home and garden industry is "thinking more now about folks that don't have large gardens," she says.
"People are also thinking about the 2008 economic issues, and saving money by growing some of your own fresh vegetables."
We're not talking about a bumper crop here.
"Just as the leaves are small, the plants are small, so what you harvest on one day is probably enough to put in a salad," Mason said. "You're not going to have enough to share or can."
But you don't have to sacrifice taste, Mason says. If the spot has eight hours of sun, the cherry or grape tomatoes will prosper.
On Mason's wish list: "A tomato that will love growing in the shade."
When too much is never enough
Lee Cabutti of Champaign came to gardening late in life; he was busy for three decades coaching basketball.
You may know his name from the court at Champaign Central High School. Cabutti has won more basketball games than any coach in history in the district, earning him a spot in the state Hall of Fame.
His age, 89, is not a number he is particularly interested in. The number for him is nine.
That's how tall his tomato plants grow on his 4.5 acres. He knows they can top 9 feet because they prosper hanging out over his 8-foot cages.
Do you think you are Mr. or Ms. Green Thumb because you have half a dozen tomato plants?
Six plants? Lee Cabutti laughs, laughs! at your puny attempt, mortal.
Try 136 plants. That's what the coach planted last year, and in a few days he expects to do the same number.
And he doesn't take the easy route.
Cabutti has a system that he says could make your plants 9 feet tall, if you follow it.
He prepares the soil with a couple handfuls of egg shells he has hoarded all winter long, for the calcium therein.
He also puts in a tablespoon of Epsom salts. People used to bathe in the stuff for sore muscles and other complaints. But it's also a source of magnesium, sulfur and oxygen. And you know who loves magnesium? That's right, tomatoes.
Then it's time for the first home, a five-gallon bucket with the bottom cut out. Do this when it's kind of wet out, Cabutti says. Fill the bucket with straw. As the plant grows, push down the straw. It's good mulch, he adds.
Cabutti lives not far from Central, but he farms tomatoes in a whole other county.
Once when he was coaching, Cabutti had the team bus stop by land for sale in White Heath. There was a little pond on the lot that he liked, and he bought the land.
Think tomatoes always need lots of water? Not so, coach says. Pinched-off stems put into the ground will grow into roots when there's little water; more roots, less added water necessary.
"Stake them; the tomatoes can get pretty heavy," he says.
The system has proved a bounty ever since. Varieties he likes include Supersonic, Celebrity and Rutgers, and he always has a few yellow ones for friends who don't care for seeds.
He sells tomatoes to some regular customers, as well as to a few new ones. Just don't tell the IRS, coach says.
Urbana's tomatoes are better than Champaign's
No one lives, apparently, to tell the tale of how Urbana conquered the tomato world in 1951 as the All-America Selections Award Winner.
The Urbana Tomato is heirloom, determinate (grows to a certain height), takes 70 days, is scarlet and weighs about half a pound. There's also a Super Urbana.
Basil and tomato go together not just because they taste good. Basil is fungicidal; it deters tomato hornworm, flies and mosquitoes and slows milkweed bugs. Plant three for every one tomato.
Tomatoes aren't always red in the face.
Chuck Voigt, a University of Illinois principal research specialist, isn't just an expert, he's a fan. At his house, there's a lot of fresh tomato juice, as well as a mixture of tomatoes, pepper and onions used as a base for soups and sauces.
An exotic he likes is the Green Zebra. When it's ripe, it's greenish with yellow stripes. He says there's a nice blend of acid and sweet in its complex flavor.
For other colors, there's the Cherokee Purple, which can have a smoky taste, or the Black Tomato.
"The Black Tomato has been around for long time; it's actually muddy brown," Voigt says.
An Oregon breeder has come up with as tomato that is literally black where it's had the most sun exposure. Instead of a lot of lycopene like other tomatoes, these tomatoes are rich in other phytonutrients, Voigt says.