Juiced over tomatoes

In a borrowed Plymouth Meeting garden, Lois Fischer tends 15 tidy types and other veggies, and nurtures her spirit as well.

Posted: June 29, 2007

Lois Fischer is mad for tomatoes. She has 15 varieties, 56 plants altogether, in her Plymouth Meeting garden: slicers, cherries and grapes, mostly heirlooms, in pink, red, yellow, gold, purple, green and orange.

"I have the tomato passion," Fischer says with a tomato-eating grin. "It's my favorite food."

She picks by the bucket, by the basket, by the storage bin usually reserved for sweaters when your kid's headed off to college. Day after day in season, she picks like that, and what she and husband Doug and 23-year-old daughter Emily don't eat, stew or make into sauce or salsa for themselves, she gives to friends, Chestnut Hill neighbors, or Philabundance, the hunger-relief organization.

It's still early for tomato plants to be producing ripe fruit. But Fischer's are growing apace in her sunny 40-by-60-foot garden on a friend's seven-acre property behind Plymouth Meeting Mall.

Though you can hear the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the distance and bulldozers down the street, this little corner of hyped-up Montgomery County still has farms in it. Maple Acres, across from Fischer's garden on Narcissa Road, is already selling beans, strawberries and Jersey tomatoes.

Fischer, 56, arrived here by happenstance. After she and her husband, 64, retired as Center City landlords six years ago, she became a community gardener at Morris Arboretum.

"I loved the community," she says, "but if one person has a weed, everyone has it."

And the arboretum requires gardens to be cleared at season's end, which militates against growing things like asparagus and rhubarb. They take time.

So when Bruce and Desire Smith - Bruce being Doug Fischer's oldest friend - suggested that Lois garden at their house, she jumped. Now, as she starts her second year, take note: The asparagus and rhubarb are thriving.

But it's tomatoes that dominate this garden.

Not in the way that tomatoes often do, when we plant too many too close - they look nice and neat in May, but by August they're a tangled heap. No sunlight or air penetrates what used to be defined rows, and unknowing visitors laugh at our hard-won mess.

Fischer's tomato collection reflects both her adventurous culinary tastes and her sense of order. Her vegetable garden's the kind we dream about.

Lots of room. Logically laid out. Clean, walkable, pretty. And fully weeded. Every day, Fischer grabs a bucket and disposable surgical gloves, gets down on her hands and knees, and handpicks every single weed she can find.

"I'm a fanatic about weeding," she says. "Weeding is critical, absolutely critical. Weeds are competing for moisture and nutrients in the soil."

Fischer warms to her topic, like a doctor gently admonishing a patient that fewer calories and more exercise are in order. And then, like a doctor inserting the word fat into the conversation, she piles on.

While advocating mulching and intensive planting "to help keep weeds down to a dull roar," Fischer volunteers that she actually likes weeding. Been known to do it three or four hours a day.

"I find it very soothing," she says. "Weeding is really good for your soul."

The orderly beauty of Fischer's garden also reflects her belief that "a garden is as much a work of art as a watercolor or sculpture." It's a connection to history, too.

"There's something very, very basic about growing food. It's a connection not just with our immediate history, but mankind's history as hunter-gatherers," she says.

Fischer enjoys the dirt and sweat of working in her garden, which she views with disarming wonder.

"Don't you think it's amazing how a tiny carrot seed, this little speck, turns into a carrot?" she asks. "I think that's magical."

Speaking of hunter-gatherers, Fischer's garden is fenced to keep critters out. Its four pathways are covered with a weed barrier made of inexpensive roofing paper, which she cuts to fit with an Exacto knife, and topped with wood chips, which can be bought or gotten free from many municipalities.

She has 17 slightly raised beds and grows most everything from seed in season. She starts her tomatoes indoors in winter.

To most of us, a garden this size would seem huge. Truth is, it fills up fast.

Fischer has lettuces like red leaf and green romaine, mizuna, tatsoi, arugula and mache; Asian mustard greens and spinach; tennis-ball-size turnips, which she likes to pickle; and tiny French filet beans, which she turns into spicy pickled "dilly beans."

She has an herb circle and a special bed for 15 basil plants. More beds hold Japanese eggplants, peppers and onions, watermelon, okra, broccoli rabe - and tomato madness.

"These are my babies," she says, gesturing to six long sawhorses lined on both sides with yellow-blossomed tomato plants. Imagine the harvest!

From late July to mid-September, the Fischers are frenetically putting up tomatoes and vegetables for winter in their flamingo-pink kitchen. And then it's off to the Shore, to Bermuda and Florida, a warm-weather odyssey that Lois insists must end by April 1.

"I have to start my tomato seeds," she says.

Take a video tour of the Fischer garden at.

Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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