With love to the #1 Tomato Grampa

I started my tomato seedlings on March 24th which is at least two weeks later than usual. It wasn’t until the snow really started to melt that I felt motivated, but better late than never.


My Dad is the self-titled Second Best Tomato Grower in West Vancouver. I can’t vouch for whether #1 deserved the title as I never met him, but as far back as I can recall, my Dad has grown tomatoes.  Not the weird multi-coloured heirloom ones, just the basic varieties of Big Beef, Early Girl and red Cherry tomatoes, that look like, you know, tomatoes. My Dad is known as Tomato Grampa to his Grandkids to differentiate from the other Grandpas; not sure if they were lucky enough to have nicknames.


I remember the first greenhouse Dad built in the house I lived in until I was 24. It had poly sheet walls on a thin frame, and a plastic corrugated roof. My mother, sister and I were instructed to donate any pantyhose that had runs, as they made wonderful flexible slings for vines and fruit; this is back in the day when women wore pantyhose at work and most other places so there was an endless supply. After I left home, my parents moved into a new house and Dad built a hot tub inset in the raised deck off the kitchen; the heat from the tub heated the enclosed glass greenhouse he built under the deck. It was ingenious and the tomatoes flourished.



When I lived in various apartments in the city, I always had a tomato plant on my deck donated by my Dad. When I moved to Pemberton, I finally had room for a garden, so started my own plants from Dad’s seedlings. As he did, Dad taught me to save the seeds from the biggest and best fruit by placing the seeds onto a paper towel and letting it dry. Label it, fold it up and put it someplace you’ll remember. No cleaning or fancy storage required. For many years, I have grown the babies from my Dad’s original plants, and I still save my seeds the same way.   I hope one day to pass along their progeny to my son.


Last year I started 72 plants, and all but two came up. Of those 70, 6 didn’t survive the transplant into the ground (I don’t have a greenhouse, yet…) so I asked my husband to pick up 6 to replace them. He came home with a flat of 36 instead. They were so cheap, he says. This happens every year as my husband has little faith in my leggy and straggly transplants, but by the height of the season they have stalks as thick as my thumb. Unlike my Dad’s orderly greenhouse rows, my boxes are overcrowded, a Tomatazon rainforest.   My carpenter husband builds straight and orderly trellises with end cuts for his bought plants, while I pick up weirdly-shaped deadfall from the woods, as pantyhose are no longer a staple of my wardrobe. My boxes are whimsical and interesting; his are uniform. Nevertheless, all our plants do well, so I spend a good part of my fall canning, drying and giving away tomatoes. I always complain about having too many but every year I still start 72 plants, in case half don’t make it, and every year my husband buys more.


When life gives you an abundance of tomatoes, make art. Photo, and vegetable art, by Nancy Lee.

When my parents moved into their current seaside apartment, Dad gave up starting his own plants. Now I donate a plant or two, some of which I get the side-eye for (Green Zebra, Big Yellow, Indigo Cherry or Roma) as he prefers the basic round red tomatoes you can slice and put on a sandwich. He also buys a plant from the local nursery, since my garden tomatoes don’t seem to flourish as much in the ocean breeze as in the Pemby heat.

As I write this a week after planting, most of my seedlings are starting to pop up, and I expect we’ll have another bumper crop. I have a heavy heart though, as Dad isn’t doing well, and likely won’t be here to enjoy tomatoes this summer. I will always be thankful for all you taught me Dad, and every time I eat a warm tomato fresh from the vine, especially the round red ones, I will think of you.

You’ll always be #1 to me.