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`FATHER OF TOMATOES’ FINDS JOY, FLAVOR IN A LIFETIME OF GARDENING

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For Father's Day, my son gave me a butterfly bush, but the accompanying card featured a bright red tomato 6 inches in diameter.

The gift said something about both of us, for he does flowers and I'm the vegetable grower on this country acreage where we both have houses.I found a spot readily enough for the butterfly-attracting bush - on one side of my compost heap. This gives a decorative touch to the homely pile that provides nourishment for the tomatoes and other vegetables. Other ornamental plants - mementos from Father's Days past - are thriving not far away: a Lord Baltimore hibiscus that blooms spectacularly late in July and an Ampelopsis, or porcelain vine, that meanders gracefully up one side of the garden shed.

I've never grown a beefsteak tomato 6 inches in diameter. Taste, not size, is the focus of my tomato patch. But I saw the gift card as portraying the Father of Tomatoes, evoking the many different varieties I have grown in 45 years of gardening.

A long time ago, I found my true love - the diminutive Yellow Pear - and that one gets a reserved place season after season. I never tire of its blend of sweet and tart. But my imagination also craves diversity, and so other tomatoes are invited every year to my garden, some from foreign countries for a dash of exotica.

My foreigners this year are three from Russia: Black Plum, Silvery Fir and Persimmon. I'm also growing two Yellow Pears, two Currants and one each of Roma, Pixie, Celebrity, Cascade and Big Beef. That sounds like a lot of tomatoes, but they're really only 12 plants.

I've raised all of them from seed, which makes me one of a steadily declining breed of gardener. Most gardeners I've talked to nowadays buy ready-grown plants at the nursery. Some have never even tried raising things from seed. They say they don't have the time to nurse seedlings on windowsills or under lights for two or three months before transplanting them outdoors.

Well, what they gain in time they lose in delight. Seeing a tomato seed, or any other seed, sprout into life is, in my view, one of gardening's greatest pleasures, Also, aside from the poetry, growing from seed makes your choice of varieties virtually infinite.

This year, the Russian Fir was the first to redden and get picked. I found the flavor pleasantly sweet. The tomato is called "fir" because its unusual leaves resemble those of a fir tree. The Russian Black Plum - not really black, but maroon - turned out rich and juicy. I got these varieties from Seed Savers International, 3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101, telephone 319-382-5872, which has been discovering old-time plants in the former Soviet Union and bringing them to America to preserve them.

With two Yellow Pears, two Currants and a Pixie, you can see that I like small fruit. That's because I've found that the small ones have the greatest concentration of flavor.

The history of my tomato growing reflects the changing experiences, tastes and habits of a longtime gardener. Time was when I grew so many tomatoes I gave baskets of them away to neighbors and friends. In those early days I used to tie the plants to stakes and, hopefully, correctly prune them.

Gradually, I reduced the number of plants and eventually also dropped the staking in favor of letting them sprawl on salt hay that I spread on the ground. This made the work much easier, but I still was getting many more tomatoes than I was eating fresh. Most of the surplus wound up in a pasta sauce that I made from an old recipe handed down by my mother.

Lately, I've become hooked on drying tomatoes in an electric dehydrator.

The slices, stored in the refrigerator, last all year. The flavor of the dried tomatoes is much more intense. Maybe there's a parable with aging. We may look shriveled up, but surprise you with a wallop.