The John Kitch Tomato

One Baldwin County master gardener has become the caretaker of a tomato variety with a very special history.

Elmer Vick // Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Every day, under the Baldwin sun, gardeners and farmers turn their soil, plant their seeds, tend to their growing crops and do whatever necessary to produce a delicious, fresh bounty. According to Baldwin County master gardener and backyard farmer Elmer Vick, who grew up farming in Fairhope and learning from his dad, an employee of the Auburn Extension Office, “It is nourishing and life-enhancing to take care of plants and watch seeds grow. If you start growing and stay with it, you will always have something good to eat.”

Now that Elmer is slowing down a bit from his careers as a vocational center instructor in Robertsdale and a heating and air conditioning business owner for nearly 50 years, he and wife Jean are becoming enthusiastic backyard farmers and land managers. The pair tends raised beds teeming with yummy okra, collards, cabbage, asparagus, sugar snap peas, onions, peppers and Elmer’s favorite: John Kitch tomatoes. Their greenhouse is filled with Kitch tomato plants and pepper plants. “I’m trying my hand with asparagus in a raised bed this year,” Elmer shares.

About a year ago, Elmer and Jean purchased about five acres just south of Fairhope, where they have established thriving citrus trees, peach trees and rows of blueberries. “As time passes and we continue to learn,” Elmer says,” we will experiment with growing other things on this land.”

This willingness to experiment and expand his variety of vegetables led Elmer to take the Baldwin County Master Gardener class in 2016.

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“I wanted to learn how to grow stuff better,” Elmer says. “I went to a Saturday morning seminar and heard Master Gardener John Kitch give a very informative talk about growing tomatoes in containers. This was a new idea to me, and I thought I’d give it a try. John was to become my mentor when I took the class, and I just learned so much from him. He explained to me that anything you can grow in the ground, you can grow in containers.”

John and Elmer became fast gardening friends. “One day,” Elmer explains, “John came up to me and gave me a small packet that contained about a dozen tomato seeds. John, a Pennsylvania native and horticulturalist, had been working on developing a perfect tomato that was both delicious and suited to our coastal Alabama climate. Sadly, John was suffering from cancer, but he wanted me to grow these seeds into tomatoes and share them with everybody. And that is how I began growing the John Kitch tomato.”

Elmer put those seeds into containers and lined them up along his driveway. They did beautifully. He also grew these soon-to-be-legendary tomatoes in a plot at Fairhope’s Homestead Village where they have thrived. Now, his home greenhouse is filled with all of those John Kitch tomato plants, as well as peppers.

Though John passed away in 2017, his legacy lives on through his versatile tomato variety; among master gardeners, the John Kitch tomato is quickly becoming the tomato you want, due to its taste and ease of growing in containers. Elmer sells the plants at master gardener functions and to the public at various plant sales.

“All of the proceeds from sales of the John Kitch tomato go to the Mitchell Cancer Center for cancer research in John’s honor,” Elmer shares.

This kind-hearted farmer shares what he knows about growing good things with cancer patients in an Auburn-sponsored initiative called “Harvest for Health.” In this wonderful program, for which John was also a volunteer, a master gardener is partnered with a cancer patient who learns how to plant, grow and nurture vegetables in the fresh air — and maybe forget about cancer for a while.

“I love the Master Gardener Program,” Elmer says. “Everyone wants to grow the perfect tomato, and with Kitch tomatoes, you get a chance to do that. These tomatoes are flavorful without much pulp or many seeds. They can stand up to anything Sand Mountain grows,” he adds with a smile. “With tomatoes and most vegetables you grow, you’ve got to keep them happy — keep them watered, keep the weeds off, keep them fertilized and keep the bugs off — and they will produce for you.” 

Elmer also learns a lot from answering the Master Gardener Helpline. “That helpline is a win-win for me,” Elmer says. “When people call in with their gardening questions, I research the answers for them, so I’m learning constantly.”

Meanwhile, out at Elmer’s acreage, while the citrus, peach and blueberries thrive in the Baldwin sunshine, he is learning how to maintain and manage his five acres. “I tried mowing this land myself and quickly realized five hours cutting grass is just not what I want to do. So I bought myself a ‘loaded’ tractor, complete with air conditioning, power, cruise control and a radio. Now that’s how to cut the land,” he adds with a laugh. He is building a barn on the property to shelter his Cadillac of a tractor.

Elmer is not content with just growing and harvesting produce. According to wife, Jean, “He is a really good cook.” She raves about his farmers’ casserole and okra-tomato bake. Together, they put up tomatoes and other fresh vegetables to enjoy throughout winter.

If you might be considering how to live a truly prosperous life, living simply gives you more time for things that matter — like growing your own fresh and delicious vegetables like Elmer Vick does. You will definitely reduce your food bill and, oh, the taste! You may never want a store-bought vegetable again.

Cheesy Tomato Tart

2 – 3 large heirloom tomatoes, sliced thinly
kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper, to taste
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 (8-ounce) package sliced Swiss cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
sliced basil or chives for garnish (optional) 

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange sliced tomatoes on two layers of paper towels. Sprinkle with kosher salt and cover with another two layers of paper towels. Press gently so towels soak up excess water, and let tomatoes sit 10 minutes.

2. Place thawed puff pastry sheet on a lightly floured work surface. Using a floured rolling pin, gently roll the pastry into a larger rectangle, about 10” x 14”. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Score the pastry by running a knife around its perimeter, about 1 inch in from the edge, without cutting all the way through. 

3. Spread mustard evenly across pastry inside the border. Arrange slices of cheese on top of mustard. Top with overlapping layers of tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

4. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake another 20 – 25 minutes, until crust is golden brown. Garnish with sliced basil or chives, if desired. Slice and serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 6 – 8

Peach Tomato Caprese Salad

Writer Dooley Berry serves this cool salad on hot summer evenings.

2 large heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced
2 large peaches, pitted and sliced into half moons
1 (8-ounce) ball fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
6 fresh basil leaves, julienned
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic reduction*
flaky sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper, to taste

1. Layer tomatoes, peaches and mozzarella on a serving platter, overlapping slightly between layers. 

2. Sprinkle basil over salad, then drizzle olive oil and vinegar reduction. 

3. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately. Serves 4

* To reduce vinegar: Bring one cup balsamic to boil, then simmer to desired thickness, being
careful not to burn.

Fresh Okra Tomato Bake

Tomato farmer Elmer Vick loves to serve this hearty side dish alongside smoked pork butt, purple hull peas and cornbread. Recipe from “Jack Daniel’s Cookbook”

1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups chopped tomatoes
1 1/4 cups sliced okra
1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves
4 slices American cheese cut into triangles or 1 cup grated cheese

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Melt butter in a large skillet, then saute onion and green pepper until soft. 

2. Stir in flour, salt, pepper and sugar. Add tomatoes, okra and basil. 

3. Pour mixture into a lightly greased baking dish. Top with cheese, then bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until bubbly. Serves 6

Elmer’s Breakfast Casserole

1 tablespoon butter
3 cups frozen cubed hash brown potatoes
1/4 cup finely sliced green onion
1/2 cup finely diced green pepper
1 finely diced jalapeno, optional
1 3/4 cups shredded pepper jack cheese, divided
1 pound pork sausage, browned and crumbled
1/2 cup milk
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
5 large eggs, well-beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1. Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Arrange potatoes in the bottom of dish and add onions, peppers, 1 cup of cheese and sausage in that order.  

2. Combine milk, eggs, salt and pepper. Pour mixture over potatoes, cover and refrigerate overnight. 

3. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 – 50 minutes, or until eggs are set. Remove from oven and add remaining 3/4 cup of cheese. Allow to rest 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4 – 6

Summer Garden Gazpacho

Gazpacho can be pureed to your liking. Some like it with a smooth consistency while others like it chunky. Others still will puree the soup halfway, then remove some before pureeing the remaining soup to a smooth consistency. No matter how you choose to do it, crusty French bread for serving is a must! Even better, toast the bread with olive oil and salt for crispy crouton garnishes. 

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, halved and cored
1 small cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 medium yellow bell pepper, cored
1/2 small red onion, peeled
2 small garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1. Place tomatoes in a food processor. Large dice the cucumber, bell pepper and onion. Set 1/3 aside for garnish and add the rest to the food processor. Add remaining ingredients and process until desired consistency. Adjust seasoning if needed. Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight. 

2. Serve cold topped with diced vegetable garnish, a drizzle of olive oil and more fresh-cracked pepper. Serves 4 – 6

Elmer’s Tomato Tips

1. Elmer uses a mixture of Black Kow cow manure (available at Home Depot), humus from the forest, and compost in his raised beds.

2. Tomatoes won’t set fruit when nighttime temperatures go above the mid-70s (June, July and August here on the Gulf Coast). Tomatoes come from the mountains where nights are cool and days are warm and dry. 

3. When you water tomatoes, avoid wetting the plant itself. This will minimize the risk of fungus.

4. After the tomato begins flowering, use a low nitrogen fertilizer to produce more fruit instead of more leaves. Elmer uses 4-12-20.

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