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Flavor 8: Tomatoes

August 6, 2014

Six years ago, Becki Janes left a long professional career in human services and started a garden near downtown Black Mountain. With just over a tenth of an acre and a production area of less than 7,000 square feet, Becki's Bounty is an urban market garden or, as some of Becki's friends call it, a "farmette."

The motto of Becki's Bounty is "A little garden with big ideas." Becki believes that everything has a functional and sustainable purpose. One of her ideas is to use spent hops from nearby Pisgah Brewing Company as mulch, which she says makes weeding easier, cushions her paths, keeps down the blight, and avoids compacting of the soil.

Becki's garden has a south-facing, 30-degree slope perfectly situated for southern exposure and good drainage. She collects water in a series of 55-gallon drums and employs a system of drip tape irrigation lines. In a really good rain, she collects thousands of gallons of water and has only to turn a spigot to water her plants; gravity does the rest.

While Becki currently does all the gardening on her own, others have helped her add some new features: a greenhouse, a pond and a beehive.

The greenhouse, built by her brother, heats the property's apartment and allows Becki to start her vegetables much earlier than she otherwise could. The pond, built by a group called Permaculture in Action, sustains fish, offers passive solar gain in the winter, serves as a reservoir in case of drought, and provides algae that Becki harvests and puts into her compost. It's also a great open water source for the bees in her new hive, who are in turn doing an excellent job of pollinating the garden.

"The garden is amazing compared to last year," Becki says. "It's so thick that I'm having a hard time harvesting. I've planted some things too closely together." Her farm's bounty consists of a variety of vegetables, including beans, squash, eggplant, peppers, and cabbage. In a good season like this one, though, tomatoes steal the show.

Becki currently has nine varieties of tomato. She grows some hybrids but mostly plants heirlooms, whose seeds can be collected and planted to produce a plant true to the parent. Hybrids, she explains, are bred for uniformity, shelf life, disease resistance, and uniform ripening for that "perfect" look on the grocery store shelf. But in mutating for qualities like uniform appearance, Becki says, "they're actually breeding out flavor." Used to hybrids, customers will sometimes notice greenish shoulders on her heirloom tomatoes and think the tomatoes are not yet ripe, when in fact those unsightly shoulders can be an indicator of superior flavor.

Becki lays out a freshly picked sampling of her tomatoes: a humungous Amish Paste, called "paste" because its low water content makes it ideal for cooking, a Cherokee Purple heirloom, a couple of locally developed and perfect looking Mountain Magics, prized for their blight resistance, a pink hybrid called Celebrity, an heirloom Speckled Roman, two almost mahogany Kumatoes, and a strikingly sweet wild cherry tomato she calls "The Mayor" because her original was given to her by the mayor of Black Mountain.

Why tomatoes? "I like the challenge of fighting the blight," Becki says. "I like working in the greenhouse and growing seedlings." And then there's the taste of sunshine.

With their high acidity, Becki says that tomatoes are one of the easiest vegetables to can. She loves using them for soups and stews throughout the winter months. "The year before last," she says, "I put up 90 pints of tomatoes, so every week I could open a can of summer."

Although blight is a big issue in this area, Becki hasn't had too much of a problem with it. She attributes this in part to the attention she pays to mulching. Blight comes from a fungus in the soil, she explains, so keeping water from splashing from the ground up on the plant is key. But all-around beneficial growing practices help, too. "I think if you do a good job of growing a really healthy plant, it will shrug off pests and diseases like blight," she says.

After a 25-year career working mainly with at-risk youth, Becki finds gardening a very healing endeavor. She says that her last job as Executive Director of Mountin' Hopes Therapeutic Riding Center in Mars Hill, in which she had oversight of 42-acre farm, brought her back to her love of land and farming, as well as to her original career aspirations (her first degree was in biology with a minor in agriculture).

While she loves growing and selling produce, Becki says she finds teaching even more rewarding. Instilling in others a can-do attitude with regard to their own food is something she does with her customers on an anecdotal level already, but she wants to do so more formally, with school groups and agritourism visitors. She is currently in the early stages of making the shift from a market garden to a teaching garden.

"I would like to be a part of teaching people to be more sustainable," Becki says. "I really feel like, if you've got any bit of sunshine on even a little bit of a patio, you can grow a tomato."

As her garden becomes more fruitful each year, Becki's philosophy, and the breadth of her garden activities, continue to develop. She recently participated in a Cycle to Farm tour, she will host a cob oven building workshop later this month, and in September, she will be part of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)'s Family Farm Tour. "You can do a lot with little," she says, "if you pay attention."

In addition to her garden produce, Becki is also a distributor of Outer Banks fresh seafood from Carolina Wild Seafood. Find her bounty at the Oakley Farmers Market, the East Asheville Tailgate Market, and the Black Mountain Tailgate Market, as well as at the garden's own Wednesday afternoon produce stand at 312B Hiawassee Ave. in Black Mountain.