When it comes to tomatoes, it’s pretty difficult to surprise Dean Karacson.
The 72-year-old Edwardsburg, Mich., man is a master at growing the red orbs. He’s been doing it for more than 50 years. He’s smart enough to know that a tomato is a fruit and wise enough not to put it in a fruit salad, as the saying goes.
And then comes this summer. “Best year ever,” he said.
He’s had more tomatoes than ever from his three greenhouses at 25195 U.S. 12. He’s had more one-pound tomatoes and he grew the largest tomato he’s ever grown: 2.25 pounds.
Most tomatoes this year ripened late, but are heavy on the vines across northern Indiana and southern Michigan. “I think it was our cold spring and cool nights,” Karacson said.
It’s not just size and number. The flavor is great this year too. “For some reason, the taste has been improving every year for the last eight years,” he said.
His 900 plants started as seed in January. In February, he planted them in two closed and one open greenhouse. You won’t find any cages holding up the plants. He uses trellises and by now the vines snake down rows and are at least 15-feet-long. He pulls off shoots, or suckers, and leaves three tomatoes per cluster. Clusters ripen just off the fertile soil. So far this year, his best plants have produced more than 20 clusters of tomatoes.
He grows them without pesticides, and fish worms raised in compost help feed the soil. He proved years ago that you could grow tomatoes inside a greenhouse covered with clear plastic.
Most of his tomatoes are a variety called Geronimo, which has a three-week shelf life. This year, Karacson has a five-day supply and has so many tomatoes he’s put them on sale for the first time in five years. They’re $2.49 to $2.99 a pound, depending on where you buy them.
Martin’s Super Market stores in Elkhart and Granger carry them, as does Charlie’s Butcher Block in Elkhart and a vendor at the South Bend Farmers Market. Karacson and his wife, Mary, also sell them from their roadside stand from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The great tomato season has energized both of them. He’s like a boy standing among his plants, plucking a yellow tomato off one and handing it to me. “Mary calls it our ‘crack tomato,’ ” he said with a huge grin.
The sweet, yellow tomato may be addictive. It’s a Sun Sugar that is doing well in a greenhouse that has a plastic cover, but open sides. Next year he may spend less to regulate the temperature of his other greenhouses, he said.
In Goshen, Paul Miller doesn’t focus on one variety at Uncle Paul’s Gardens on the east side of Goshen. He has 113 types planted in raised beds at 404 Olive Street. One plant rises in a cage more than 10 feet off the ground. There are green tomatoes and red tomatoes, blue tomatoes and striped tomatoes.
They have names like Halsing Junction Blues and Garden Peach. If you want an heirloom tomato, Miller may be growing it. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Aug. 27, he’ll be slicing every one and offering tastes.
He sells a few from a small stand on the property and supplies a few restaurants. What was a hobby is becoming more of a business, though he said he’s still working through the red tape with the city to make that happen.
For Miller, tomatoes are the vehicle to get people on the road to eating better. He wants to grow a tomato so full of nutrients that it won’t rot. “My main goal is nutrient-dense foods,” he said. That starts with soil he keeps nourished. “Your food is only as good as your soil is,” he said.
This is the time to eat tomatoes. Not January when they’re put on trucks and shipped north. But now, when you can get one from your own garden or Miller’s shed or Karacson’s greenhouse. Now is when the tomatoes are ripe and taste like a real tomato. Whether you eat it on a BLT, in a salad or with the juice running down your arms, now is the time to take a bite of summer.
Both Miller and Karacson have one bit of advice: Don’t put your tomatoes in the refrigerator. The coldest they should be is 55 degrees. Anything lower will turn it mealy and kill the flavor.
“Just set it on the counter until they get as ripe as they want,” Karacson said.
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This time of year, some are so good coming off the vine, they’ll never make it to the counter.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.