Ken Hoffman reveals his secret for protecting your precious garden-grown tomatoes

I have been growing tomatoes in my backyard for at least 20 years. Sunday, April 25, for the first time, I got to eat one of them.

Actually, two tomatoes survived to make it to my kitchen, where I made the most underrated sandwich of all-time: sliced tomatoes and Swiss cheese with Miracle Whip on toast.

Over the decades, my attempts at growing tomatoes have died prematurely due for various, usually self-inflicted, reasons: insecticides, the wrong fertilizer, too little water, too much water, but mostly natural selection.

Squirrels, birds, worms, and mice are enjoying late-night snacks on my tomatoes. These freeloaders don’t eat one whole tomato, they just take one bite out of everything and leave a mess, like an elementary school lunch table.

I know, I could just cut off the once-bitten part, but I’m not eating a tomato after a squirrel licked it. I don’t let people drink out of my Diet Pepsi bottle — I’m not going to essentially French kiss a rodent. (Editor’s note: Gross, Ken.)

I tried picking the tomatoes while they were still green and letting them ripen on the kitchen counter. They just stayed green, hard as a rock. I tried growing them in pots dangling from hooks, even that upside down planter “as seen on TV,” but nothing worked. Not a single tomato made it to the finish line — until this year.

Fighting furry freeloaders

West University Place, where I have my spring-summer home, is an uninhabitable jungle of wildlife. A company that specializes in capturing and removing animals, dead or alive, from West U attics says my little burgh is home to armadillos, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, snakes, rats, possums, and more freeloading savages. I once saw a raccoon dive down a sewer on my block.

In 2017, local TV news did stories about coyotes patrolling the railroad tracks that divide West U from Bellaire. That’s when we started carrying sticks (and more lethal weaponry) when we walked our dogs.

I went into my attic and smelled something peculiar, like something died up there. I called my buddy Reg “Third Degree” Burns to get it out of my house. I mentioned this in my column and readers let me have it.

One called me a “poltroon” (awesome word). I had to look it up. Okay, I’m a coward for having someone else do my dirty work.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a possum in my backyard. He looked dead. To check, I spritzed him with a garden hose. He wasn’t dead, just playing, you know. Instead of fleeing the backyard, he made a move toward me. I Usain Bolted back into the house.

The most frightening incident was the time I brought a plate of burgers outside to grill. I opened the grill and found a rat — I swear, the size of Godzilla — in there. I screamed like a horror movie extra, the burgers went flying, and I ran back into the house. I should just stay in the house.

Bird-brained gardening

So how did I manage to successfully grow two tomatoes to full vine-ripened maturity this time? I got inside a bird’s brain. What would keep birds from eating my tomatoes? How about a scarecrow that looks like a bird’s natural enemy.

I dug into my dog Sally’s toys and found a stuffed raccoon.

I placed the squeak toy on the edge of my tomato container like a polyester sentry and, let’s just I thoroughly enjoyed my tomato and Swiss cheese sandwich. I am a bird brain. The dog toy protected my tomato plants like those two marble lions outside the New York City Public Library. (Bonus trivia: the two lions are named Patience and Fortitude.)

All my money spent on chicken wire, cages, wood, ultrasonic squirrel repellent, raised boxes, and shopping sprees at garden supply stores was wasted. Just put dog toys in your backyard and you’ll be Farmer John.

I figure that my two tomatoes last week cost about $250 each.

That’s still cheaper than Whole Foods.

Garden-grown is better. Or is it?

About that business that homegrown backyard tomatoes are a hundred times better than the flavorless, mealy, greenhouse tomatoes you find at the supermarket. Really? I know a guy, happens to be a former mayor of Galveston, who is famous for his unbelievably delicious, backyard-grilled, baby back ribs. Like George Costanza, he claims that he won a contest.

I loved his ribs, everybody did. I asked him, what’s in your sauce? I figured he had some family recipe handed down by generations. He said, “I use Kraft barbecue sauce.” And not even the expensive brown sugar or honey or mesquite bottles, just plain Kraft barbecue sauce, the stuff you find for 88 cents on the bottom row of the supermarket aisle.

He said, “Kraft makes a million gallons of this sauce every day. They know what they’re doing.”

Now that I’ve completed the circle of a tomato’s life, I’m done backyard farming. I’ll just pick my tomatoes in the supermarket produce aisle.

Del Monte knows what they’re doing.

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