Updated: Feb 22, 2020
I bought five tomatoes on a vine a couple of days ago at Super Fresh on the banks of the Delaware River. They were bright red and firm. Each tomato cost about a dollar. Expensive, but worth it, I thought. The local Jersey tomatoes looked yellow and spotted, and I knew from the last batch that I’d eaten they didn’t taste anything like a tomato. We got a handful of grape tomatoes from the plants on our deck, but then they stopped growing. Those few were enough to make us lust for a lot more tomatoes. And we were pleased that the mice and rats left them alone.
This time, though, I chose the greenhouse variety grown in Colorado. I imagined the tomatoes growing in one of those high sunny plateaus surrounded by mountains, or on the plains half way to Kansas. The tomatoes were grown by the Mastronardi family—yes I googled the company’s name—Sunset—stuck to the red curve of the sweet tomato. They’ve been growing vegetables for 50 years in greenhouses that stretch over acres in Brush, Colorado and a place in California. Two states with sunshine that pours down day after day. The tomatoes are grown in beds of soil and cuddled in white nets.
Chris Land’s article in The New York Times, in early spring, reported that in Madison, Maine at Backyard Farms there are 42 acres of greenhouses where a million tomatoes “ripen indoors.” The tomatoes grow in a soil less mix “spun out of volcanic basalt.” The growers add fertilizer and the hydroponic tomatoes ripen near the top of the greenhouse. Maine, unlike Colorado, doesn’t have days and days of sunshine. These tomatoes are coddled with sodium lights and pumped full of carbon dioxide. A tomato imported from Spain, Chris Land tells me, is a better choice. The Maine tomatoes “are responsible for emitting nearly four times more greenhouse gases.” I’m figuring that my tomatoes grown in Colorado might be a bit more ecologically friendly, but not much.
Maureen Carroll describes the hanging gardens of Babylon in her book Earthly Paradises. Nebuchadnezzar II built the famous gardens for Amytis, his wife, “homesick for her native Media (Kurdistan) and the mountain vegetation.” The terraced gardens of herbs and vegetables were fed with water from the Euphrates. A painting of Emperor Babur’s Garden of Fidelity in Kabul in 1595 shows water channels dividing the garden of oranges, pomegranates, and flowers. I wonder how the water from the river was drawn to his flourishing garden.
I use water here pumped from the river. When I hold my hand under the mouth of the green hose, the water is lukewarm, like cooled bath water.
A few years ago, a student from Temple University designed a project to grow flowers and vegetables in hydroponic gardens on the rooftops of a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Josh Meyer, then a senior, installed pipes and tubes on concrete walls and on balconies and in courtyards. He taught people to grow lettuce, watercress and chives. They grew flowers, too. The cost was about $25 per garden. The pipes were filled with water and liquid fertilizer. Meyer and his group of students with the help of a local organization, Via Rio, taught a group of residents to grow tomatoes, beans, and other crops to supplement a diet of mostly canned food. I’m trying to imagine the tomatoes grown on the steep hillsides in the poor neighborhoods that cluster above the shinning city and white beaches.
One of my favorite memories is the taste of a tomato in Joan Cloud’s Brownsville,Vermont garden in September, hot off the vine. Sweet and warm in the palm of my hand and then in my mouth, the smell of the leaves, the heat of the garden, the brook just over the bank, cool and green.