Wishing for tomatoes this birthday

Carmen Lopez Marshall and Peter Marshall of Peter's Pumpkins & Carmen's Corn. Submitted photo

My grandfather was an avid backyard gardener and challenged himself to have ripe tomatoes by his mid-summer birthday.

This was an easier task in Fort Wayne, Ind. I have tried to replicate his same quest for years here in Minnesota, and even with an early August birthday have yet to match his success.

Wondering why this may be and when I could expect my tomatoes to turn, I spoke with Peter Marshall of Peter’s Pumpkins & Carmen’s Corn farm to get an update on the 2017 growing season. Peter and his wife, Carmen Lopez Marshall, farm in Shakopee and sell at Neighborhood Roots’ Kingfield, Fulton and Nokomis farmers markets.

As of Aug. 1 — although perhaps things will have changed by the time you read this — tomatoes have yet to hit the tables at Peter’s farmers market stands, and everyone is asking where they are. Their absence is due in part to the 65-miles-per-hour winds back in early March, which knocked one of their greenhouses down.

Peter and Carmen managed to pack their second greenhouse to the brim in an attempt to get everything started from seed. Once the tomatoes were growing, however, they could only plant a few hundred at a time, with days long pauses in between. All of this spring’s precipitation had caused the fields to turn into mud and prevented them from working.

Although tomatoes are night-ripeners and can turn on a dime, Peter said to expect his about two weeks late this year due to the recent lack of warm evenings.

It has also been a challenging year for Peter’s onions. All it took was five minutes of pea-sized hail to topple the young plants and slow their growth. Peter had to return to the rows to hoe and bury them all upright, which accounts for the delay, but the farm’s sweet red, yellow, Walla Walla and white varieties will picked as soon as they reach softball size.

The corn harvest is excellent so far, he reports, and picking started early on the 15th of July. Everything looks on-track for his vine crops, and he is anticipating his famous pumpkins to be picked the second week of September.

Melons also look good and will be ready mid-August. This year, in addition to the iconic, sugary, oblong sangria watermelon of childhood seed-spitting contests, he has planted varieties such as orange seedless flesh, red flesh, black diamond seeded and seedless and yellow doll seedless. Minnesota almost never gets hot enough for an early melon season, but during the last two weeks of August our climate produces some amazing results.

The usual end-of-summer dry spell puts stress on plants and trees, causing them to put all of their energy into the survival of the fruit or vegetable — and intensifies their flavor in turn. Generally, Peter and Carmen try to keep the fields clear of weeds, but during the dry spell they begin to allow weeds to come up so the fruit will be shaded against sunscald.

Peter maintains the ugliest portions of fruits are often the sweetest. Don’t be hesitant if they have bruises or scars, as this is where they are tastiest.

With the inventory from the field unpredictable, Peter and Carmen have increased their canning efforts to continue participating at area markets. When there is a surplus of beets, beans or berries, they freeze or process them to be dealt with later and eventually sold. Find updates on their salsas, jams, pickles and produce on their website, peterspumpkins.com, or visit their Facebook page for pictures from the farm.

When we are finally in the full swing of our beautiful tomato season, Carmen suggests replacing the lettuce of a BLT with long slices of cucumber for a refreshing twist on the classic sandwich. Meanwhile, I will be standing on my porch and speaking affirming words to my heirloom cherry tomato plants and wondering if this is the year I get juicy, red birthday treats.


Dustin Hertzog is the Chief Doughnut Purveyor at Bogart’s Doughnut Co., and a board member of Neighborhood Roots since 2014.