Creating a tomato haven in Douglas

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

A south-facing window is sufficient to turn an Alaskan's thoughts to Early Girl, Oregon Spring and Beefsteak.

And the "trout boys" are no exceptions to the rule.

Doug Jones and Roger Harding are fisheries biologists with the state Department of Fish and Game, working out of an office building on Third Street in Douglas. They specialize in studying trout, spending days in the field researching cutthroat and steelhead at sites such as the Auke Creek weir.

But they are not immune to the siren song of ripe, juicy, fragrant, red tomatoes. And while most Alaskans find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to grow tomatoes, Jones and Harding have the right windows for the job, situated in a warm workplace.

"I think I was the first one to do it, when they reorganized the office about four years ago," Harding said. "I was sitting here one hot spring day, and I decided it was 'hot enough to grow tomatoes' in here. Actually planting some was a statement to the state about how hard this building is to cool off."

Harding's first crop did so well others in the three-story building started their own tomatoes, too. "It's really paid off. Last year there must have been six or eight offices with tomatoes," he said.

This year Jones and Harding planted a total of eight big pots. As the plants grew, they created an intricate scaffolding. They used bamboo poles, wire, string and push pins, and tied some runners to window latches.

Cherry tomatoes were what they first attempted to grow, but since then they have branched out to Early Swedish and Beefsteak. "Early Tanana produced well this year," Harding said.

As far as fertilizer goes, Jones relied on Stern's Miracle Grow for Tomatoes. Harding likes Miracle Grow but "not too much." He leans toward recycled aquarium water, bailed from fish tanks around the building. "It's an easy way to get rid of the water, and it has nutrients in it," he said.

Jones also grows tomatoes at home, and the office mates decided they should try to keep track of the office harvest. Many of the mature fruits were golf-ball-size, but one measured 4 inches across.

"I had some that made two slices, big enough to cover some big bread," Harding said. "It's nice to pick one for a sandwich just slice it right at your desk."

"You can't buy 'em like this," said Jones. "That's why we have four plants at home, and why my wife JoAnn lets me take up the living room window. They do really well; they like big pots and lots of water. We harvest more than we can eat and even give some away."

Since Harding forgot to water his office plants last week and night temperatures are dipping closer and closer to freezing, the trout boys' tomatoes are getting a bit leggy now, a bit yellow around the gills.

"I'm embarrassed by the way they look," he said.

But just two or three weeks ago, co-workers swear on a stack of Burpee's catalogs, the tomatoes were pushing against the ceiling tiles creating a virtual jungle canopy 8 feet above the desk.

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