Every summer my next-door neighbor, a retired widower, grows tomatoes along the white picket fence that separates our yards. Since his wife passed away several years ago, his grown daughters help with the gardening now. They tend to the roses and other plants along the fence, too, but it’s the tomatoes that take center stage from late spring until mid-fall.
From the time the seedlings are planted, I get regular updates on the tomato plants’ progress: how many plants went in this year, when the first blossoms appear, and when the first batch of actual tomatoes might be ready for picking. This year’s crop included beefsteaks, romas, and adorable orange and red cherry tomatoes. (One of his daughters calls these sweet little babies “pop-em’s” because “you just pop ’em in your mouth.”)
We have a good exchange going, my neighbor and I. He gets apricots from my 70-year-old tree in the late spring, and I get tomatoes from the his prolific plants in late summer. He generously insists that any tomatoes on my side of the fence are mine for the taking, whenever I want. Those on his side are for The Sauce he makes and cans with his daughters in the fall. Friends and family are the lucky recipients of The Sauce, and I am grateful to be included in that group.
If I don’t take enough tomatoes during the height of summer, he’ll make sure I get my share. I’ll pull into my driveway, and just as I’m getting out of the car, he’ll emerge from his backdoor to quiz me from across the fence: “Are you taking tomatoes?” If it’s early in the season, and I say “not yet” or hedge a bit, he’ll pull a few perfectly ripe red beauties from the plants on his side of our white picket fence and insist I take them, handing them across the fence. Sometimes I’ll arrive home to find a few tomatoes waiting for me on the landing outside my kitchen door.
As the summer wore on, I finally learned to keep fresh mozzarella and basil on hand for impromptu insalata caprese. On nights when I wondered what to pair with my favorite little gem lettuce, I could just slip out the back door and grab a handful of pop ’ems to add to my salad.
Just as I was getting my groove with the local tomato supply, summer and the tomato harvest came to an end — all too quickly, it seemed. My neighbor had stashed his harvest in fridges and ice chests until it was time to make The Sauce with his daughters. I made do with the last few pop ’ems that hung on my side of the fence. Sure, I could still buy tomatoes at the local farmers’ markets for another few weeks, but they’re not quite the same as my sun-warmed, white-picket fence tomatoes. I’m already looking forward to next year’s crop.