Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Roma tomatoes becoming star plants in St. John’s organic restaurant garden

Several weeks ago I wrote the first in a series of columns that will chronicle the progress of our two-acre organic restaurant garden.

Today’s update is brought to you by the Roma Tomato Growers Cooperative.

There is a strong possibility I might have gotten carried away while planting our Roma tomatoes. A year ago we stopped purchasing cherry tomatoes and regular 6×6 tomatoes at the restaurant and moved exclusively to Roma tomatoes. We use them in salads, sautéed pasta dishes, and in various soups and sauces. Plain and simple, they taste better for all of our applications.

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The chefs in the restaurants told me that we go through 12 full cases of Romas every week. There are approximately seven-dozen Roma tomatoes to every case, that’s 1,000 tomatoes per week. So I planted 268 plants. According to early data, I think I overshot the mark.

Today, the Roma plants are 12-14 inches high and have small, budding tomatoes all over them. I’m talking about a lot of tomatoes ALL OVER THEM. We are probably two weeks away from being knee deep in Roma tomatoes.

Some of us never learn. Ten years ago I planted four 100-foot rows of squash. Those readers who have planted squash before (you’ll know them, because they are the ones who are laughing hysterically at this very moment) know that 400-row feet of squash is one heckuva lotta squash. It never ends! You pick squash one morning (10 bushels) and there’s even more the next. We can learn a lot from a simple squash plant. Though I apparently didn’t learn enough, as I quite possibly may have repeated the mistake, this time with tomatoes.

Everything is starting to sprout and bud. The cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon are looking good. All of the pea and bean varieties look as if they may be as prolific as the tomatoes. The herbs we’re growing— basil, mint, thyme, and cilantro— are sturdy and are already being used in the restaurants. The corn and cucumbers are in a separate one-acre plot and were planted later than the first garden.

Tomatoes are the stars so far.

The organic route hasn’t been too much of a challenge in the early going, but I know that the challenge is coming. Bugs, bugs, bugs. The deer and other creatures of the forest are being kept at bay by a solar powered electric fence, but the bugs have yet to invade. I am sure that when the fruit hits the vine the news will spread among the entire insect community in Forrest County and all eyes will be on this small two-acres of vegetable and fruit-laden real estate.

In the past few weeks, I have met several people who make organic fertilizer and have chosen a couple of their products to use on our plants. And I am grateful that the rain has cooperated so far. Last year when we had a five-week drought in June, with no rain, and daily temperatures in the high 90s. I’ve got a contingency plan for watering if it comes to that.

The most interesting garden development for me occurred last week when I purchased a beehive with approximately 5,000 bees. The garden now has an army of pollinators, but the bonus is that we’ll have honey for the restaurants, too. Bees are fascinating insects, and I’m learning more about them everyday. A second hive will arrive in the next few weeks.

The tomato surplus is coming. I’m researching recipes already: Grilled tomatoes, roasted tomatoes, gazpacho, variations of marinara sauce, stuffed tomatoes, and tomato soup. Though I think I’m most looking forward to BLTs made with Benton’s Bacon, fresh spinach and fresh,  organic Romas from the garden.