By John Kuglin Special to the Havre Daily News
HELENA - It's tomato roulette time in Montana.
Just when the vines are groaning with half-ripe fruit, a killing frost could strike any night, wiping out months of fertilizing, watering and combating an array of tomato-loving pests that range from pack rats to deer.
The chilling news is usually delivered in mid-September by a jovial TV weatherman named Frosty, who waves frantically at maps and charts before delivering the coupe de grace:
"If you haven't covered your plants tonight, it may already be too late."
All the yard lights in our neighborhood would go on. Out I'd go, with dozens of other wretched backyard tomato farmers, to cruelly rip the vines from the garden and hang them from the rafters of the garage. That works about as well as the equally strange practice of plucking the half-green fruit from the vines, wrapping them in newspaper and putting them in a box to ripen.
Like chewing gum left on a bedpost overnight, does an Early Girl or Beefsteak lose its flavor after it has been wrapped for two weeks in the sports section of the Havre Daily News? Absolutely.
After years of pulling up vines full of green tomatoes in the middle of the night, I tried attacking the Tomato Problem on the other side of the calendar by putting out the plants before Memorial Day. Unfortunately, this is the peak of the hail season.
One year, three crops of promising tomato plants were pulverized in their infancy by hail. This included one storm of biblical proportions with hail the size of small eggs. By the third visitation of hail, there wasn't a tomato plant to be had within 50 miles of Helena.
In later years, I tried surrounding the fledgling tomato plants with vinyl tubes filled with water. As advertised, the sun's rays heat the tubes, which warms the soil, keeping the tomato plant roots snug at night. That works until the tubes leak or the deer knock them over, turning the tomato patch into a wetland.
Five years ago, an offbeat garden supply catalog arrived in the mail from New Jersey, and I ordered half a dozen small, wooden platforms on casters. That year, the tomato plants went into large terra cotta pots, which were placed on the mobile platforms.
Now, if the tomatoes haven't ripened into lush, red orbs when the "cover your plants" warning is sternly delivered on the 10 o'clock news by Frosty, the pots are wheeled into the house. There, the tomato vines cohabit happily with the family. Often the fruit is harvested as late as Christmas, adding to the holiday festivity. Over the years, I've added to the collection of platforms - which are now stocked at leading big-box stores - branching into zucchini on wheels.
My late friend, the humorist Dan Vichorek, wrote in an article for Montana Magazine that "In Montana, the tomato is consistently voted as the favorite green vegetable.''
It doesn't have to be that way.
John Kuglin is bureau chief for The Associated Press in Montana and Wyoming.