“Tomatomaniac” is no exaggeration when it comes to describing the infectious enthusiasm of Mark Donofrio, a grower for Tomatomania, “the world’s largest (and most fun) tomato seedling sale” founded by Scott Daigre, Donofrio will be returning to the neighborhood with his heirloom seedlings and will give a short talk on the wide range of tomato varieties, care and maintenance as well as sharing his secrets for growing the most successful tomatoes at the Hancock Park Garden Club Pop Up Plant sale on Saturday, March 4.
The Buzz caught up with Donofrio during last Friday’s heavy rain storm. He’d spent the previous day battening down the hatches at his farm, The Starter Farm, in an effort to keep his goats dry, and was quickly covering his newly planted seeds with mulch to prevent them from washing away. When he finally had a moment of quiet and cell phone reception, Donofrio told us that supporting the Hancock Park Garden club’s Pop Up Plant sale, proceeds from which will help the Ebell restore its historic garden, is like helping his former neighbors. Donofrio was co-owner of Larchmont Grill for three years and made lots of friends over the years who supported his restaurant and enjoyed his food, including the produce he grew for the restaurant at several community gardens. In fact, it was gardening that Donofrio told the Buzz saved his life during the early days of running the restaurant.
“Early in the morning, I would go to the garden and work, it was a great stress reliever,”said Donofrio. “The 14×5 foot space at the Fountain Community Garden helped me get through the first two years of the restaurant. Then, when I sold the restaurant, I realized that what I loved was growing the food.”
Now Donofrio operates a small farm that he shares with his husband in Santa Ynez, where he has many fruit trees and depending on the year, grows flowers like Sunflower, Dahlias and Zinnas. He also farms fava beans, kales, lettuces, figs, etc. for some local restaurants, raises goats and serves as the Director of Operations for Tomatomania. Donofrio signed onto Tomatomania, sharing Daigre’s belief that everyone can grow tomatoes and more importantly, they should!
Donofrio believes that growing your own food is extremely good for us on many levels, including the sense of well-being that one gets from growing your own food. He also thinks it’s essential that people, especially kids, make the connection between the land and the food to underscore the importance of taking care of the land and the animals who share it with us. And, he says, there’s also the immense gratification that comes from eating a warm tomato just picked from your garden on a warm summer day. For Donofrio, tomatoes are the best way to draw people into growing food because they’re relatively easy to grow, and almost everyone likes tomatoes in some form or another.
“It’s funny, tomatoes are the only vegetable, actually they are a fruit, that seems to engender this kind of affection,” said Donofrio. “You don’t see anyone talking about a cucumber that way!”
“People who come to Tomatomania sales are passionate,” explained Donofrio. “Some come to our sales desperately seeking a particular variety. We have some that are black mahogany, super sweet sun gold cherrie, etc. They really are maniacs about tomatoes.”
Donofrio will be bringing some of the 350 varieties of heirloom tomatoes to the March 4 event. To some it may seem early to plant tomatoes, but since there’s no danger of frost in LA, Donofrio says we can safely plant tomatoes at any time.
To insure a long growing season of tomatoes, he advises planting in succession. Buy some plants at the pop up sale and plant them, then be sure to visit the rest of the sales on the Tomatomania schedule, where you can continue to buy and plant tomatoes until April, if you are willing to travel up the coast following their sales. He also suggested buying the indeterminate variety (instead of the determinate, which means they will produce a certain amount of fruit), because they continuing producing until the weather tells them to stop. More than 75% of the plants he offers are indeterminate, so there are lots to choose from.
For more tips on tomatoes, don’t miss Donofrio’s talk at the Hancock Park Garden Club’s Pop Up plant sale at 10 am on Saturday, March 4 at the Ebell’s Lucerne Avenue parking lot. You can also find him on the web at The Starter Farm.