To Die For Tomatoes at the Beach

basket of garden grown tomatoes

The Sweet Science Ripening on the Vine in One Virginia Beach Backyard 

By Marisa Marsey

Don and Connie Weis’ garden is far from garden-variety. It sits theatrically atop a 10-foot berm, a consequence of their Virginia Beach backyard bordering a shopping center. There are two ponds, four staircases and paved walking trails with nearby Cara Cara, blood orange and sour cherry trees. 

“I’m from Pittsburgh,” says Connie. “You can’t get a fresh sour cherry around here.”

But the nitty-gritty of their 800-square-foot organic oasis is tomatoes. They devote 95 percent of their crop to the fleshy orbs, cultivating 1,300 pounds from July to December.

“I’m a tomato freak,” Connie states the obvious. “I’m forever seeking the perfect fruit.” 

Rows of ripening fruit are a discerning tomato lover’s dream, and even local restaurant
owners like Todd Jurich have shared in the Weis’ bounty.

A food pro mentored by the late Taste Unlimited (now TASTE) founder Peter Coe, she defines perfection by deliciousness and staying power. So, she zeroes in on hybrids, having found that with heirlooms “you can expect a few good ones, then the vine dies.” 

She compliments local garden centers for upping their tomato game beyond Big Boys, and she pores over the Totally Tomatoes catalog the way fans drool over her the two cookbooks she has authored, Extreme Brownies and 50 More Extreme Brownies. (Yes, she’s as zealous a baker as she is a gardener—eggshells aplenty in the compost.)

In their double-wide greenhouse this past February, Connie and Don started 27 seed varieties including the colorfully, quizzically named Ruby Monster, Crimson Cushion, Dixie Red, Pink Jazz, Sparky, Roadster and Dinner Plate.

Like most gardeners, they share their overabundance with friends. Among those friends are some of Coastal Virginia’s top restaurateurs such as John Stein (of Baker’s Crust and Quemar) and Todd Jurich.

When the latter started dropping by regularly in the early aughts to pick up boxfuls, he’d whiff irresistible aromas wafting from Connie’s oven (she also once won in a Pillsbury Bake-Off) and asked her to be pastry chef at his eponymous Bistro in Downtown Norfolk, a post she held for several years.

The Weises earmark the remainder of what they call their “hippie garden,” because of all its repurposed items, for growing herbs. 

“Can’t have tomatoes without basil,” Connie says, adding: “Only Genovese, it’s so much more flavorful than Sweet.”

She credits Don, a retired schoolteacher and natural-born tinkerer, for their productivity. Among non-stop projects over the years, he’s shored up the berm with retaining walls and converted a lawn mower into a leaf mulcher by adding a second blade.

“I’m married to MacGyver Don,” says Connie admiringly, describing tomato cages he forges from concrete reinforcement wire, securing them into the ground with rebar rods. “No matter how big a wind, they won’t blow over unlike those useless cone cages.”

He’s mutually appreciative: “I’m infrastructure, but the plants are all her. It wouldn’t work without the nitpicking stuff she does, down to taking out every little piece of past plants.” Then he adds, “And she feeds me.” 

How to Be a Tomato Weis-perer

Long-married high school sweethearts, the Weises are lucky in love…and love apples. Both take a lot of care. What works for them may help growers of even the humblest tomato patch.

“Most people till at the beginning of the growing season, but I do things backwards,” says Connie. She hand-tills in December, ensuring no lingering tomato roots or leaves that could encourage disease. Then she puts down a six-inch layer of fine leaf mulch; it composts all year round, acting as a nutritional tea and preventing weeds.

Plant seeds a quarter inch deep in 6-inch pots, so roots have room to grow. “You can use anything to poke the seed holes, but I use a chopstick,” says Connie. “It’s pointy.” Sift potting soil atop seeds to remove sticks and other obstructions. 

Tomatoes adore full sunlight, but you have to “harden them off” before planting outdoors. “Otherwise, it’s like taking a pale person to Miami and leaving them out in the sun,” Connie stresses. “They’ll burn!” She gradually introduces plants to natural light by setting them out for a half hour the first day, then an hour, increasing time outdoors for a week.

When it comes to transplanting, “People like me get itchy. We want to do it early,” says Connie. “But don’t! It’s disastrous!” She follows this region’s rule of (green) thumb by not planting outdoors before April 15.

Once in-ground, before putting dirt back in, water the roots. “If we get a good rain, I don’t water for a week. I think blossom end rot is caused by overwatering,” Connie says. But if not, she’ll water once a week by placing the hose near the stem for 30 seconds. “Don’t water the leaves,” she cautions. “That’s up to Mother Nature.”

Pinch off sucker branches taking energy away from branches producing tomatoes; then it’s a waiting game. “But it’s so exciting when you get your first yellow tomato flower,” Connie gushes. “Nothing better than the first tomato of summer.”

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Marisa Marsey
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Marisa Marsey is a food, beverage and travel writer whose awards include 1st place Food Writing from the Virginia Press Association. A Johnson & Wales University representative, she has sipped Château d'Yquem '75 with Jean-Louis Palladin, sherpa-ed for Edna Lewis and savored interviews with Wolfgang Puck and Patrick O’Connell.

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