Friday, August 28, 2009

Volunteer Cantaloupe

Alternate Title: The Cantaloupe That Almost Wasn't

Not long after I completed the kitchen garden expansion, I started seeing what looked like little squash plants growing all along the walkway between the new raised beds. While I thought it was kinda cool that these free plants were accidentally growing in my garden, I wasn't excited about the potential of battling the dreaded Squash Vine Borer on all these plants. There were like 10 of them!

I mentioned these squash looking volunteers to my friend J and she reminded me that last year she had something that looked like volunteer squash that grew really big but never developed any fruit. Just what I need, a non-producing space-hog. I ripped out all the plants, except one that was growing toward the front of the garden because I have a little more space in that area and I was able to work around it without too much trouble.

Week after week I watched this plant grow bigger and bigger, taking up more space and eventually covering the entire walkway in the front of the kitchen garden. Flowering like crazy, not producing a single fruit. And every day I had the same internal debate with myself, my selves arguing back and forth about whether or not it would ever produce anything and how much of a moron I was for letting it keep growing while I stepped over it and around it in the garden.

Then, one day something grew out of one of the flowers. And Holy Smokes it's a cantaloupe! I've got about 8 volunteer cantaloupe growing in the walkway of my garden, and now my backyard. The plant is about 15 feet x 6 feet. It's huge and it has now invaded the raised bed with the green beans/eggplant/cucumber.

I tried to grow cantaloupe from seed last year but it only produced one fruit that never became ripe. I don't recall ever disposing of it so it's entirely possible that I just left it in the garden to decompose and the seeds were subsequently carried to this area by some critter. Year before last I did successfully grow cantaloupe on the other side of the yard - maybe the seeds came from there. Or, maybe the dirt/compost I purchased by the yard had cantaloupe contamination.

The season is already winding down in Chicago. It's only 64 degrees today. The leaves on the volunteer cantaloupe are turning yellow and short of a garden miracle, I don't see how the fruit will have time to ripen. But, it sure has been fun watching this thing grow out of nowhere.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tomato Contest: Winner!

On Saturday I entered the Show Me Your Tomatoes contest hosted by this awesome Tapas restaurant called Cafe Ba Ba Reeba. I'd first read about the contest on Chicago Garden and since I had what I thought was the ugliest tomato (one of the contest categories) in town growing in my backyard, I decided to enter. And since there were two tickets to Las Vegas being awarded for the Tastiest Tomato, I thought I'd be crazy not to enter that, too. I've got 18 tomato plants growing in my garden for God's sake! I bought some from our community garden, some from Chicago Tomato Fest plant sale and a few from Jewel grocery because they sold organic heirlooms again this year and, well, they were right there while I was shopping. I had no choice!

Big Ugly is a Brandywine tomato grown organically by Forest Park Community Garden for their plant sale. I didn't do anything special to this particular plant and if you've grown Heirloom Brandywine before, you know they have a tendency to get pretty mutated. But, the flavor! Holy smokes they are amazing. In the days leading up to the contest I had a lot of fun showing the picture of Big Ugly to people and watching them grimace. My husband was so creeped out by it that he would only agree to go to the contest with me if I "covered that thing up so that he didn't have to look at it again."

I'd planned to enter a Heirloom Mortgage Lifter (I'm growing it for the first time this year) for the tastiest because I think the flavor is really interesting. But, Saturday morning when I went out to harvest the Mortgage, I was horrified to find that there was not a single ripe one that didn't have some flaw. Thank you, squirrels! But, I did find a couple of nice looking Heirloom Cherokee Purple (pictured above) tomatoes. I'm growing them for the first time this year, too, but the problem was that I had not tasted the Cherokee Purple myself. The first ones were literally just ripe on Saturday morning. So, while I'd read that these tomatoes are one of the most delicious heirlooms you can grow, I had no personal evidence of that.

Cafe Ba Ba Reeba has hosted the Show Me Your Tomatoes contest for four years. We found all the staff extremely warm and friendly and we'll definitely be going back there for dinner soon. The judges were Lyle Allen, Executive Director of Chicago Green Market, WGN's Mr. Fix-it, Lou Manfredini and Doug Tomek, owner of Uncle Dougie's. All very nice gentlemen and as I watched them taste the tomatoes, I could tell that they really love and savor tomatoes, just like me.

Just before the judging started, I was admiring all the entries in the various categories (Ugliest, Famous, Biggest, Heaviest and Tastiest) when a lady asked from her table "which one is yours". When I pointed out Big Ugly, she said "yep, that's the winner!" I was pretty confident.

Then, after I thought the entry deadline had already passed, a lady walked by me with a really big crazy looking tomato and I groaned "oh boy, I may have some competition."

Let me just cut to the chase - they did not call my name for ugliest tomato. This late entry won that prize and dinner for four at Cafe Ba Ba Reeba. I was pretty disappointed and to be honest, just wishing they'd hurry up and finish so we could go home (it was really cold on Saturday and we'd been sitting there freezing for a couple of hours by then.)

When they called my name for tastiest tomato, it was like I'd won the lottery. I screamed and my husband jumped up and high-five'd me. As I walked toward the front to claim my prize (round trip tickets for 2 to Las Vegas including 3 nights/4 days hotel stay and dinner for two at Cafe Ba Ba Reeba, Las Vegas), the judges and the restaurant owner seemed really happy. "I would like to introduce the 2009 Tomato Queen." They put a leaf tiara on me and snapped a couple of pictures of me and the chef. I really never dreamed I'd win for tastiest. In my head I'm still a novice gardener - I'm lucky to get anything to grow much less grow something that is tastier than like 15 other tomatoes probably grown by much more experienced gardeners. It was the happiest my husband and I have been in quite a while. And it's been a rough few months so we really needed this.

A word of advice about tomato contests - know the variety you are entering! The girl who won for Heaviest Tomato was asked what variety it was by the crowd and she said "I have no idea." I didn't think too much of it until my husband told me later that, after I won and somebody in the crowd asked me the variety; they were all "well at least she knows what kind it is!"

I don't think I've ever won any contest where skill was involved. It's an amazing feeling, especially considering it involved a tomato, the most perfect food on the planet.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ugly Tomato Contest: Big Ugly Brandywine

Here's a short video of my entry for the Ugliest Tomato at the Show Me Your Tomatoes contest hosted by Cafe Ba Ba Reeba. This is a Heirloom Brandywine tomato grown organically from seed by Forest Park Community Garden for their plant sale.

You can also check out Chicago Garden for a sneak peak at the results. I plan to write a full post about tomorrow.