It’s hard to top homemade spaghetti sauce, but sauce made from vegetables grown in your own garden does the trick.
You’ll want a sunny spot, the brighter the better, and two big planters with decent-size drainage holes. Whiskey barrels are heavy, stable, and handsome, but if you’re on a limited budget, any empty bucket will do as long as it holds five gallons or more. (Once the oregano and thyme sprawl over the sides, you won’t notice the bucket anyway.) Line the bottom of each pot with small, upside-down plastic pots or pieces of Styrofoam for extra drainage, then fill with rich soil mixed with compost and a handful of balanced, 5-10-5 vegetable fertilizer; the numbers are on the bag, or just ask.
You can plant from seed if you start your tomatoes in flats indoors, but it’s easier to get seedlings, usually around Memorial Day. Late tomatoes are more flavorful than the early ripening varieties; Roma or other “paste” tomatoes are a good choice for sauces, and we like Sungold and the Sweet 100 cherry varieties in a primavera or in pasta salads.
Plant two tomatoes in each planter, burying half of each seedling or a little less under the soil at a 45-degree angle; a second set of roots will develop from the buried leaf node, and the plant will straighten in a day. Leave plenty of space between the seedlings. If you stake the plants from the get-go, it will save you time down the road.
Add a garlic plant and a basil plant to each container — garlic helps repel insects and basil is said to improve the flavor of tomatoes — and in the remaining space plant oregano, thyme, rosemary, a bay leaf, whatever you use in your sauce. Be sure to press down firmly on the soil around each plant to ensure good contact between the roots and the soil — air pockets can dry out the roots and kill your plant — but don’t press on the plants themselves. Finish with buckwheat hulls if your area isn’t too windy, or use a layer of compost as mulch.
After that it’s a question of time and care. Water your planters frequently and regularly to keep the soil evenly moist, not drenched, and watch for especially windy or hot days that might dry out your plants faster. As your tomatoes grow, pinch off suckers (ancillary shoots that grow from the crotches of main stems) with your fingernails.
Tomatoes can develop tomato hornworms, bright-green caterpillars with horns on the ends. Pick those off by hand, unless they have tiny white dots on their back; the dots are the eggs of a parasitic wasp that will kill the hornworms and save you some gross work. Also keep your eyes peeled for blossom-end rot, which looks like dark circles at the bottom of the fruit, and indicates the plant isn’t getting enough water or calcium, or got too much fertilizer. Snip off any affected tomato as soon as you see a circle forming.
The companion herbs can be used all through the season and should be. Pinch or clip off the amount you need for whatever dish you’re making, and make sure you don’t let flowers form on your basil; the flavor turns once the plant “bolts.” You’ll have to wait longer for the tomatoes, but once they’re fully ripe and ready to harvest, twist or cut the stems to keep from damaging the fruit.
And then, pull out your largest pot and make some sauce.