Round Robin: Tomato Memories

LANSING, New York –Tonight we’re having pasta with a sauce I made and put in jars last summer. My husband grows many kinds of tomatoes, including paste tomatoes, but lately those with the best flavor have been the cherry tomatoes. This year George grew Sweet Million, and they were absolutely marvelous. I kept eating them as if they were candy, but even I couldn’t eat them all, so I decided to try them as sauce. After heating, mashing, and straining them, I cooked them for about an hour, added salt, poured the boiling liquid into pint jars, and added a sprig of basil to each. The sauce is wonderful just as it is, but sometimes I add onions, garlic, peppers, or mushrooms to it for a change. One of my daughters, who lived in Italy for many years, suggested this method.

I think of my mother and her rows of canned fruit and vegetables, juice, chili sauce, pickles, and jam, and how little impressed I was as a child by her industry. Now, I feel extraordinarily virtuous and expect a lot of appreciation if I make a few pints of sauce and several batches of jam and jelly. After all, I’m sacrificing time that could be spent in the garden.

Of course, the garden is now a frozen waste. Looking at it, it’s hard to believe that in a few months’ time it will have turned once again into billowing masses of color. Every year, the garden holds surprises. One such surprise this year was that my Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain’ lived through the winter. It’s a European native, but its hardiness hadn’t been tested here, and somehow I got the idea that it wouldn’t put up with very cold weather. It bloomed generously and for many weeks, its spikes of smoky lavender blossoms looking particularly handsome against the glossy foliage of a Fascination dahlia and a pale gray-blue campanula (Campanula carpatica var. turbinata). Clumps of large-leaved, wine red ajuga around the campanula completed the picture. This salvia takes up quite a lot of room–about 24 by 24 inches–but if you find a place for it, you’ll not be sorry.

The nurseryman from whom I bought it suggested planting it near Stachys byzantina ‘Helene von Stein’. If you have an big empty place in the front of your border and have a penchant for dramatic plants, you must get hold of this one. Buy only one, though, for it increases in size so fast that you’ll have to divide it by the second spring. I bought a small specimen in the spring of 1994 and divided it into three pieces in the spring of 1995. By summer’s end each division was a 3-by-3-foot rosette of giant furry ears, each a foot long if you count the 31/2 -inch stem. Pretty impressive. Sculptural, in fact, but you do have to keep a sharp eye out lest those big ears smother your dianthus, thrift, or other small border tenants that live anywhere near this baroness. (The plant, by the way, was named for the Baroness Helene von Stein Zeppelin, who runs a nursery in Germany.)