This was the first year I didn’t start many tomato plants . In the past, I’ve started all kinds — cherokee purple, green zebra, juliet, beefsteak, early girl, orange sunset, garden peach — in my basement in February, kept them under grow lights, hardened them off as the days got longer and had them all in the ground by Mother’s Day. I’d start getting ripe tomatoes by August 1st and have 2-3 months of bounty, but also many, many green ones still hanging on the vine by the time the first killing frost hit. So even though it’s easier to grow tomatoes in Chicago than it is in, say, Portland, Oregon, where I’ve heard the summers aren’t hot enough for the average home gardener to get a good crop of tomatoes, it’s still a short season, and the tomato-growing ain’t perfect.
But what’s happening this season is something I’ve never experienced before. Due to the time constraints of a new job, I only started one variety of tomato this year, Cherokee purple, and did it straight outdoors sometime in April. Aside from two Cherokees, I also have three volunteer tomato plants which came up from last year’s dropped seeds and four plants given to me by a friend. The three volunteers are cherry tomatoes — an orange variety that’s super sweet and tasty. I ate my first one on July 1st, a full month earlier than what’s customary in these parts. But the other six plants have yielded exactly nothing. In fact, only one plant has any tomatoes at all hanging from it. And even that plant has just one. One green tomato. Six huge plants.
The soil is good and I’ve watered during the drought-like conditions we’ve had most of the spring and summer. The plants look healthy; they’ve all had a fair amount of flowers, but they just aren’t fruiting. Even though my ambitious neighbor on one side of me has some green zebra tomatoes coming in and my overachieving neighbor on the other side has some juliets, I know that I’m not the only one getting a pitiful crop from the bigger tomato varieties. It makes me think that even the tomato — a stereotypically heat-loving vegetable — has its limits. The plants are too stressed by a string of 100-degree days to do anything more than hang on. Do Chicagoans need to start planting heat-tolerant varieties, like they must do in Florida and Georgia? Has it just been too darn hot for tomatoes? Is it time to move to Portland?