Monday, July 14, 2014

Tasty tomatoes come from compost

What does it say about a person’s horticultural skills when the best-performing tomato plant in the garden is a volunteer vine growing in the compost pile?

Don’t tell my husband — Ralph’s ego is at stake — but the tomatoes he planted in the garden don’t hold a candle to the ruby-red gems that have taken over the compost heap.

Cherry tomatoes growing among the weeds and food scraps in the compost pile

A compost pile is a wondrous thing. Its ability to transform kitchen waste and garden refuse into rich soil puts illusionist David Blaine to shame. Without mirrors or sleight of hand, a bucketful of onion and garlic skins, potato peelings and that moldy batch of cooked beans from the back of the fridge turns into a tasty harvest of cherry tomatoes.

It’s magic, pure and simple.

I first noticed the cherry tomato plant growing in our compost pile several months ago. Back then, it was a small thing, popping out of the back corner of the enclosure like an exuberant weed.

Our compost pile is a three-sided structure of haphazardly stacked blocks set into a hillside about 30 feet away from the house. Our compost bucket — an old blue enameled pot — lives on the kitchen counter and every couple days one of us lugs it up the hill to dump its contents on top of the heap.

Our compost pile is more functional than fancy

Despite our efforts to beautify the area where organic matter decomposes, our compost pile would never appear in the pages of a garden magazine. It’s a messy, smelly place filled with visible reminders of yesterday’s meals, garden detritus and assorted weeds. We never turn it, as experts recommend. Instead, we rely on the toss-and-walk technique, carelessly tossing our food scraps into the pile, then quickly walking away.

Nonetheless, our less-than-fancy system repeatedly rewards us with edible delights. Last year, papaya trees grew out of some thrown-away seeds and the discovery of avocado saplings no longer surprises us.

Our current crop of compost-pile-grown tomatoes arrived in a manner similar to the way the papayas and avocados took root. Sometime last season, Ralph or I threw a few old tomato vines into the compost pile along with other past-their-prime plants. A few tomatoes still clung to some of those vines, and eventually they began to rot, depositing cherry tomato seeds into the compost pile.

Once there, the seeds waited patiently. When temperatures warmed, they began to grow. They did all this on their own without need to read the back of a seed packet to find recommended planting dates and without additions of any special soil mixtures or pest-control formulas. They grew because conditions were right. They were left alone, and they thrived.

I really like cherry tomatoes. Fresh off the vine, they taste like candy — sweet bursts of flavor tickling my mouth. Slow roasted in a cast iron pan with a little olive oil, garlic, onions and a few basil leaves, they turn into a smooth dance across the palate, rich and vibrant. Lately, when I’m in need of a cherry tomato fix, I find myself ignoring the measly specimens clinging to the staked up garden plants and head instead to the compost pile.

Bite-sized bursts of flavor

It’s not easy picking. To access the shiny orbs, I have to get down on my knees (no longer as easy as it used to be) where fire ants usually find me. I also have to reach down through the tangled vines and leaves to where who-knows-what is living.

But when I finally do reach the tomatoes…oh, my gosh! Such bright-colored beauties! Such ripe, juicy sweetness!

Instead of feeling upstaged in the tomato-growing arena by a rogue plant rooted in rot, I hope my husband the gardener appreciates the lessons taught by our compost heap harvest: Goodness can sprout out of the most unsavory conditions, and sometimes hard work must take a second seat to unplanned gifts of nature.