Having already won a handful of red and blue ribbons Saturday, Dripping Springs resident Michael Ryan had a sheepish grin after placing in another category at the sixth annual Dripping Springs Tomato Roundup.
For 20 years now, Ryan has placed his heart and soul into the gardens he’s tended to. Every year, those gardens keep expanding, he said. Where some go to the links to find their inner peace, Ryan goes to his garden.
“At the end of the day, it’s a place where I can go out there and leave myself to,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s story is a common theme among those who attended the festival, which not only allows local growers to show off their ripest, reddest, juiciest tomatoes, but also to give a glimpse into the resurgence of the local organic garden.
Getting to that point began six years ago when John Dromgoole, famed organic gardner and owner of The Natural Gardener in Austin, hosted the inaugural event on McGregor Road, where his business once had a soil yard.
Goole said the genesis of the event was avid tomato growers wanting to share their love of tomatoes with everyone else. Tomatoes was the focus as its the most popular produce item to grow.
One of the most avid in the area was the late Harley Clark, a retired district judge and the person credited with creating the “Hook ’em Horns” hand signal for the University of Texas at Austin.
Clark was also a big tomato grower and regularly frequented the Natural Gardener’s soil yard, which was near his home, Goole said. It was Clark who had the idea of holding the festival to help people understand how to grow tomatoes and to gain knowledge about the different varieties.
The inaugural tomato festival was held in 2011. From there, the festival blossomed, with attendance growing every year.
Laurel Robertson, manager of the Dripping Springs Farmer’s Market, said the city’s Farmer’s Market adopted the festival soon after the soil yard closed. The event, which was held at Founder’s Park, was moved to the Triangle along U.S 290 as popularity grew.
“It’s the biggest tomato festival in Central Texas, at least,” Robertson said.
Participants in the event include a mix of full-time farmers and home gardeners. What they bring to the festival is a color mix of tomatoes of varying sizes and shapes, ranging from dark heirloom tomatoes, to small, sweet cherries, to ripe romas.
What comes in, however, varies on the vagaries of farming and gardening, Robertson said.
Robertson said the biggest factor among tomatoes is flavor, texture and mouth appeal, as opposed to size and color.
Anna Voges, owner of Voges Gardens, said tomatoes are like wine for some people. One of the biggest differences between store-bought tomatoes and homegrown is the flavor, Voges said. She felt grocery store tomatoes are flavorless, while homegrown can be sweet or acidic.
“Everyone has different tastes, so surely someone can find some tomatoes here they like,” Voges said. “It’s all on the taste and what you like to eat.”
The event also one way of showing the comeback of the small, diversified family farm that produces a variety of local produce, Dromgoole said. He said such operations keep money here, which is “an important thing.”
“We can be proud of the family farm for coming back and supplying everything we need locally,” Dromgoole said. “That’s the beauty of a small farm coming back.”
Voges, who grew up in Boerne, helped her dad produce crops of up to 3,000 tomatoes. While she hated growing tomatoes at an early age, she took up her father’s craft later in life.
“I had a continued love of tomatoes and I do what he taught me to do,” Voges said.
Gardening has also spread into the next generation. Gabby Robles, 10, of Dripping Springs, claimed the Prettiest Tomato blue ribbon Saturday.
Dennis Robles, Gabby’s father, said his family started an urban garden at the house to teach his children about time investment and responsibility.
For Gabby, putting her hands into something and “not just buying (produce) from the store” got her started in her own organic garden. Tomatoes grown at the Robles garden are used for salads, salsas and are eaten raw.
Learning how to tend to the garden is something Dennis believes his children will gravitate to for the rest of their lives.
“It’s a good thing to know about because I’m of younger age and I can teach people about how to grow many things other than tomatoes,” Gabby Robles said. “I can show people what I can do and how I’ve been taught.”