You say tomato; so does he

Times Staff Writer

Last year, Bill Anderson grew 10,990 tomatoes, not counting the ones consumed by Buster the Manchester terrier.

He picked the first two on May 2 and the last 11 on Oct. 4. Five months later, he planted the first of this year’s seedlings.

Anderson and his wife, Christine Griego, don’t have a back 40. They live with two dogs in a small house on a 6,500-square-foot lot in Winnetka. Aside from the tomato plants -- 34 last year -- there’s some grass, a few trees, a few dozen rose bushes. But as you approach their house, there’s no mistaking what’s at the top of this food chain. The frontyard is full of tomatoes: along the sidewalk, in an area Anderson calls the koi pond, in pots by the front door. A small sign with a painting of a tomato hangs on the front door.

The backyard is ringed with tomato plants, some in the bright Valley sun much of the day, others shaded by a huge Ponderosa pine.


Still. Ten thousand nine hundred ninety tomatoes? How did Anderson even begin to know that?

He chronicled his obsession. Each morning of the tomato season he collected the ripe fruit and spread them out on his kitchen counter. He organized them by variety and entered the totals onto index cards stored in a cookie jar, for later transfer onto spreadsheets. And he ate tomatoes -- for snacks, in salads and sauces. He and Griego gave them away, fed them to friends. They froze tomatoes. Lots of them; in February, they still had frozen tomatoes to give away.

As the 2008 season began, Anderson figured he was on track to harvest around 15,000 tomatoes from 52 plants. That was about twice the number he and Griego intended to plant, but a friend gave them some seedlings, and they ended up with 16 more after volunteering at a plant sale. What could they do?

Anderson, 46, doesn’t want people to think tomatoes are the center of his life. He has a job (software development); he has friends. He and Griego have been married for a year. Be that as it may, he is extraordinarily devoted to his tomatoes.

That doesn’t make him unique. Not by a long shot.

“If you think that growing backyard tomatoes is just that, you’re missing the point,” said Scott Daigre, a garden designer whose Tomatomania seedling sale has become an intensely awaited kickoff to the season. “It’s a search for the past, a romantic search for a memory, a hope of reliving a childhood experience, a great dinner.”

Tomatomania was founded in 1991 as a one-day sale at a now-closed nursery. Daigre eventually bought the event and the trademark, and this year held six Tomatomania sales, five in California and one in Connecticut, offering “the most interesting heirlooms and hybrids that are not commercially grown that we can find.”

That translated into 300 or so varieties, of the thousands that exist.

Half an hour before the Encino Tomatomania sale opened at 9 a.m. on April 4, the parking lot was half-full.

“Who sleeps in for Christmas?” one shopper asked.

Walking the aisles of plastic flats of seedlings, starting at $4 apiece, was a little like walking the racks at the Barney’s warehouse sale. It was impossible not to worry: What if everyone else was getting the best stuff? What if they ran out of Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter?

Tomatomania requires strategy, said Anderson, who, with Griego, was among the volunteer workers this year.

“It is like the board game Risk -- you go there, I’ll go this way,” Anderson said. But you need to leave room for serendipity or to take the advice that flows among shoppers.

That guidance might include passionate testimonials for Big Boy, Better Boy, Tough Boy, Big Beef or Lemon Boy. Black Plum, Black Krim, Black from Tula, Black Brandywine or Cherokee Purple. Boxcar Willie, Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Red, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Red Currant, Mr. Stripey, Italian Ice or Julia Child.

Daigre estimated that 12,000 to 15,000 people attended the six Tomatomania sales; the average sale is eight to 10 seedlings.

Burr Buman, a marine consultant who was shopping at Tomatomania, chalked in well above average. This year, he planted “as many as 80 plants,” a lot of them “black-skinned” tomatoes such as Paul Robeson or Carbon. “This year is my year for the blacks,” Buman said.

He rigged 25-gallon pots and a drip watering system on his roof in Newport Beach and started the season with 15 trash cans full of compost and 3 cubic yards of dirt.

Is it a lot of work? “Of course. My wife seems to think I’m obsessed.”

Like Buman, many shoppers focused on black tomatoes -- many of them actually mauve or brown in color -- this year. Color, shape and taste all matter to growers and cooks.

What’s the best tomato? Simple, according to Daigre. “My favorite tomato is the last one I ate,” he said.

His favorite recipe? “Pick a great tomato. Wash it. Or not. Cut it. Or not. Salt it. Or not. Eat it.”

Toward the end of March, Anderson was ready for planting. He had turned the dirt in the front and back yards to better nurture the seedlings. A large container of compost sat in the driveway.

He and Griego, 45, are convinced the western San Fernando Valley is particularly accommodating to tomatoes, evidenced by last year’s harvest. On this Saturday, it was already hot under a wide, cloudless sky. If everything went well, the first harvest would come in May or June.

The first tomato, a Patio, was planted in a container on Feb. 26. Nine more varieties were introduced in March, including the Red Currant, which produces tomatoes as small as its name suggests and proved to be Anderson’s most prolific in 2007. (Five plants produced thousands of tiny tomatoes.)

Until recently, the only way to eat a decent tomato was to grow it or to buy it from a farmer. Supermarkets have made considerable progress. But too often tomatoes still are sold from refrigerated cases, and that splendid taste remains elusive.

So tomato fans have taken matters into their own hands.

“There has been a blossoming of interest in home gardening and self-provisioning,” said Amy Goldman, author of the new book “The Heirloom Tomato” and chairwoman of the board of Seed Savers Exchange, which has 5,979 varieties of tomato. “People long for more natural beauty, more flavor and better nutrition.”

Heirloom tomatoes are the prize of growers and gourmets, the pot of gold at the end of the farm-to-table rainbow. They can be beautiful and delicious, a much more obvious break from corporate food than, say, a home-grown zucchini.

By April 12, Anderson was cultivating 38 plants in the ground or in containers. It was an unusually hot spring, with temperatures at his house well into the 90s.

Anderson and Griego have developed a system for planting the seedlings: He digs a hole, she drops in a whole raw egg. The plant goes in, and then soil, leaving just 3 or 4 inches above ground level. Planting deep is part of the strategy. They stomp on the ground to pack the earth. The egg is for extra nutrients.

Aunt Ruby’s German Green “looks like it’s going to take off,” Anderson said. “I’m not big on green tomatoes, but this one’s supposed to be fantastic.” His zeal extended to Olga’s Round Yellow Chicken Egg -- “I grabbed it on the name only” -- and Taxi, which “you can almost watch ripen by the hour.”

Anderson is the first to portray himself as an enthusiastic amateur, no more; it’s just his third year growing tomatoes. But he happily shares his experiences, including on a blog .

Griego, an account executive for a commemorative pin company, has been a gardener for years. When she and Anderson were dating and she introduced him to the tomato-growing frenzy, his reaction was, “I’ve landed on Mars.” But in 2006, Griego planted 16 tomato plants, and Anderson took over. He began corresponding with Daigre and recording information on 3-by-5 cards (an unusual accounting system for a software developer). Spreadsheets followed, then the blog.

This time of year, Anderson waters three times a week (too much leads to watery tomatoes). Plants in the ground receive an organic fertilizer twice during the season; those in containers get more, because the nutrients wash away with watering. In the first couple of weeks, Anderson pinched the buds to force the plant to concentrate on root growth. “I’m not concerned about how tall the plant is, I’m concerned about how deep the roots go,” he explained.

Later in the season, he said, he expected to spend an hour a day picking, watering, tying branches to stakes or cages.

By mid-May, he had picked the first tomatoes of 2008. But on a drainingly hot afternoon, Anderson expressed a little worry. Last year around this time, he said, his plants “looked fantastic; this year they look very good.”

It was so hot the metal cages holding the plants burned some of the leaves.

It turned out there was reason to worry. Tomatoes like heat, but at the wrong time, it can scorch buds or otherwise stress the plants. That happened to many growers this year, Daigre said.

Still, Anderson’s Husky Cherry had 100 unripe tomatoes in mid-May. The Red Currant was 5 feet tall, with more buds than you could count. But the Snow White cherry that produced 1,771 tomatoes in 2007 had none.

Sometimes, it’s a thrill to pick a tomato. Early one morning, Anderson found a big Red Yellow Cap. “Yowza! Hot dog!” he said.

“I can remember one day last year I got tired of harvesting and I just stopped,” he said. “I hope we get there this year.”

The total harvest for June 2008 -- 1,538 tomatoes -- was ahead of 2007: 1,259 tomatoes. But that bounty didn’t last. In July, Anderson picked 1,629 tomatoes, compared with 6,154 last year. In August, 938; last year, 2,806.

Last month, Anderson and Griego joined about 70 other tomato fans at a tasting and discussion organized by Daigre at the Loteria Grill on Hollywood Boulevard. There was some celebrating and plenty of commiserating about a disappointing season -- though, as Anderson said, it’s a stretch to call the 4,500 tomatoes he’s likely to pick a “bad year.”

And there’s always next year. Anderson and Griego are thinking about growing more from seeds than seedlings in 2009.

“My life doesn’t revolve around tomato growing,” Anderson said one afternoon. “But you’re making something that’s delicious and healthy. I don’t want to come across as too New Wavy, but it’s not just that they’re good for you. They’re spectacularly good.”

Does his life revolve around tomato growing? Perish the thought. But perish the thought of summer vacation as well; Anderson and Griego “couldn’t possibly” get away. But as the season waned, they found just the right way to celebrate their first anniversary at Sunday’s Carmel TomatoFest, a party that draws thousands to eat, drink and listen to music -- all in celebration of the tomato.