Return of the killer heirloom tomatoes. We hope.

It’s with a humble heart—not gloating, mind you—that I report, perhaps a bit prematurely, a looming bumper crop of five or six kinds of heirloom tomatoes plus lettuces, radishes, peas, carrots, beeets, string beans, chard, squash, cucumbers and other greens, here at the ranch.

Sadly, this is happening while our friends in the U.S. and Canada are still sloshing through ice and snow, not to mention frozen canine mementoes just coming into view. Undaunted by the gloom outdoors, a few of my more enterprising acquaintances will wistfully set trays on the windowsills and watch hapless seedlings crane toward any stray rays of sunlight. Others will resort to germinating seeds under the purplish, ghostly glow of grow lights, a weird cousin of real sunlight.

They have a ways to go before the safe date for setting seedlings outside—May 15 in Chicago. I sympathize with their impatience and anguish. We lived in Chicago for 30 years.

Lettuce show you: Taken Sunday afternoon.

Not so at the ranch, where we had a very mild winter, with only a few overnight freezes, and it’s been downright warm since mid-February. Not one to wait, Félix brought up our seed packets from last year and started planting leafy greens four weeks ago, and tomato seeds last week.

For the warmer-weather vegetables we came up with an innovation: Using the plastic boxes the broiled chickens from Costco come in. The bottom tray is black and waterproof and the clear plastic top functions as a perfect mini greenhouse.

We then place them in the glass-block windows on one side of the garage, which are perfectly sized to fit the repurposed containers. They receive the warm western afternoon sun but without the risk of nighttime temperature drops.

Born-again Costo broiled-chicken packages. 

Weird but it works. Eat Costco chicken, lots of it. It’s very tasty, and then save the plastic boxes for me.

For a planting medium we use regular dirt, fortified with our homemade compost that’s been cooking all winter, and handfuls of vermiculite to keep the mix light. We squirt water on the trays daily, using a plastic Coke bottle with a tiny hole in the cap, to avoid swamping the tiny seedlings.

There are a number of things that we miss about Chicago, most memorably the heirloom tomatoes plate at Cafe Selmarie in Lincoln Square. Selmarie was a combination bakery, breakfast place and restaurant where you couldn’t get a bad meal no matter what time of the day you showed up. We once tried the $12 plate of five or six types of heirloom tomatoes that was so colorful, interesting and delicious that we’ve been trying to replicate it in Mexico ever since.

Glass-block windows double as mini greenhouses

Though most out-of-towners associate Chicago with winter, during the summer fresh vegetables from Michigan, Wisconsin and downstate Illinois flood the city’s farm markets. In San Miguel  tomatoes are available year-round but only if your taste runs to Italian plum tomatoes, grape tomatoes and bola, a larger but fairly insipid variety. Black Krims or any exotics are not available.

But ah, envious naysayers might say, you’re only in the first inning of this growing season, and in the style of the Chicago Cubs, all sorts of catastrophes might befall as you approach the bottom of the seventh.

True, last year we had a near-Biblical plague of grasshoppers that chewed up everything, even some succulents. Towards the end of the summer we ended up putting mosquito netting on the vegetables, but even then, a few of those buggers would get underneath.

The only relief was provided by our two new kittens, which took to chasing and killing the hoppers that landed on the terrace, but not nearly fast enough to make a difference. We found a very effective insecticide that came with a lengthy list of warnings, in tiny barely readable type, that its use could cause a thousand alarming maladies in humans and animals, from dandruff to diarrhea.

We can expect a myriad other pests, from cutworms to rabbits, and we’ll deal with them one at a time, mostly by adding plastic collars, chicken wire and other improvisations that by midsummer have the beds looking like vegetable concentration camps.

But the seventh inning, never mind the playoffs, is still far ahead. Now it’s the time for resolutely positive thinking, and dreams of recreating the heirloom tomato special at Cafe Selmarie not to mention a replay of the Cubs’ miraculous 2016 season.

Back to tree planting: Two more photos of our tree-planting campaign last week. The two guys are Félix in the hat, and his buddy Juan. They have known each other for years, and Juan is the godfather of one of Félix’s kids. They are what you call real buddies, and equally nice guys. In the bottom picture, check out the rocks they had to pull out while digging a hole for Douglas fir. 

Note to readers: I changed the widget for leaving comments. Feel free to try it. I hope it works. Al

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