CHICAGO — For Bob Zeni, a perfectly round, perfectly red store-bought tomato is something to look at, but not to touch. In fact, Zeni hasn’t bought a tomato since 1990. He grows his own heirloom tomatoes to avoid buying what he calls “tasteless parodies” or “red water balloons.”
“The gardening itself is very satisfying and certainly enjoyable,” Zeni said. “Seeing what it looks like is beautiful.”
For more than a decade, Zeni followed the same routine.
In February, he started planting tomatoes at his home in La Grange, Illinois. Wherever a window was in sight, a table containing a budding heirloom pot sat right next to it. In March, he moved his plants to his portable garden greenhouse. Zeni’s daughter, Rebecca, and several neighbors helped him put up what looks like a transparent plastic tent fitted with heaters. In April, the tomato plants would be ready for sale.
But that was until 2019 because, like her heirloom tomato plants, Zeni’s business continued to grow until there was no more space in her house or driveway.
Today, Zeni, dubbed “Chicago’s Tomato Man” by his daughter, owns more than 4,000 heirloom tomato plants in a greenhouse that stretches a block away. Inside are over 100 varieties of fruit, ranging from big red Beefsteak tomatoes to dark and smooth Black Beauty tomatoes to bright yellow Golden Grape tomatoes that can brighten up any salad.
Beginning on the last day of Martin Luther King Jr., Zeni began working alongside Gardeneers volunteers in their spacious greenhouses. Gardeneers is a non-profit organization that uses school garden programs to teach students about nature, nutrition, how to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and how to help the planet locally.
Adam Zmick, CEO of Gardeneers, said planting Zeni is aligned with what the organization does and is a way to better support school gardens.
“How it works is that a team of garden educators visit our 16 schools at least once a week to engage students in the garden,” Zmick said. “(Zeni) needs a lot of hands to do all of this so that we can contribute and we can earn income to help support our school gardens.”
This year, each tomato plant costs $6, with more than three dollars going to gardeners.
“They put in a lot of time and effort,” Zeni said. “They deserve it.”
Between April and May, its customers pick up their pre-orders at several different locations around town, as well as Evanston, La Grange Park, Lamont, Palatine and Wheaton.
And some Zeni customers have come away with more than just a tomato plant.
A father was able to teach his children to harvest. A mother and daughter duo strengthen their bond by using their green thumbs to contribute to a community church in Northbrook. And everyone who has purchased a tomato plant from Zeni also has the opportunity to share the taste of a fresh heirloom and create new recipes.
“When people take it, it’s rewarding because people are giddy with excitement,” Zeni said.
Selmaan Ansari, one of Zeni’s customers, has been buying tomatoes from him for three years. A neighbor who knew Ansari was looking to set up a garden suggested he check out the wide variety the Tomato Man offered. It excited Ansari to find someone who was local.
“Every year I get about six to eight plants from him,” Ansari said. “I have young children and they can watch them grow, so when it comes time to harvest, they ask questions and want to be the ones picking the tomatoes.”
For Monica Dim, a beginner gardener, this is the second year she has bought from Zeni. She and her mother, Colette Dim, contribute to the community garden at St. Giles Episcopal Church in Northbrook.
Colette Dim said she has been involved with the community garden for 14 growing seasons. There are 30 garden plots of 10 by 10.
“Anyone who gardens with us donates to the Northfield Pantry and some of the Evanston Pantries,” Colette said. “I said to Monica, ‘Let’s get our tomatoes together’, so we decided to go headlong and get a dozen tomato plants each for last year.”
Although this is the second year that Monica has been buying tomatoes, it is the first year that she has gained the full experience of gardening.
“I was nine months pregnant when I first bought my tomato plants from her, so I had a lot of questions and couldn’t do much of the planting myself,” said- she declared. “When you’re able to grow and share your own tomatoes, it’s very exciting and he made it possible for me.”
But some of his new customers are confused or disappointed when they see their tomato plant for the first time. For Zeni, it’s an opportunity for a moment of learning.
“I get complaints from first time buyers because I give them this plant and it’s really tall and a little skinny and a little bushy and they say, ‘Well, there’s something wrong with that plant,’ Zeni said “I tell them no, just bury the bottom third and it will bloom, don’t worry.”
Zeni remains engaged with its customers months after the sale. He takes phone calls to answer any questions and asks for photos to verify the growing process because he can understand the frustrations his clients are facing.
“Tomatoes are full of moisture and juice and they need water,” Zeni said. “The other thing is if you drown it and then forget about it for two weeks, the tomato pit grows faster than the tomato shell, so what happens is the pit breaks the hull and that’s when you get the mold to the top.”
For Zeni, the key to growing a ripe tomato is finding the right balance of heat, light and water, along with tender, loving care. He admitted that it took nearly 20 years to find success.
“Every year I failed and every year I learned from that,” Zeni said. “There’s a lot of frustration with having too much water or too much water, too much heat, not enough heat and trying to sell those things.”
This year was no different.
“I always lose around 15-20% and this year, despite our best efforts, we lost 20%,” Zeni said. “One of the shelves had fallen off which killed a whole bunch of them, and then in March we moved them to the greenhouse thinking there was heat and there wasn’t, which also killed several others.”
Faced with these difficulties, Zeni not only feels like a more knowledgeable gardener. Unexpected twists also help tomatoes become more resilient.
“It hasn’t been hot, there has been no sun and there has been way too much rain, so the plants are struggling, but that’s not a bad thing,” Zeni said. “You have to harden the tomatoes, that is to say expose them to variations in temperature, which strengthens their stem.”
The frustrations pay off, however, as he experiments with new varieties of heirloom tomatoes every year.
“When the word heirloom is applied to growing fruits and vegetables, it means created using non-GMO open pollination techniques,” Zeni said. “It’s not the common definition of being old. As oxymoronic as it may sound, there are new legacies.
This year, Zeni is growing a tomato from seeds given to her by a Norridge customer last year. The customer said the seeds came from his wife’s grandfather, who had saved seeds from Calabria, Italy, every year for 100 years.
“I was honored that he thought of me,” Zeni said. “He didn’t have a name for it, so we named it Art Zaino’s centenary.”
Art Zanio was the grandfather’s name and to Zeni’s knowledge he is the only one selling this particular variety.
When he’s not doing business, Zeni enjoys a quiet night eating a plate of fresh pasta with his wife, Wendy, who cans the tomatoes.
“We take it out in the winter and she makes a secret spaghetti sauce that she learned from her mother,” Zeni said. “It’s fresher, it’s good and it’s better than at the store.”
Bob Zeni grows his own heirloom tomatoes to avoid buying what he calls “tasteless parodies” or “red water balloons.”
Bob Zeni, nicknamed the Chicago Tomato Man, grows heirloom tomatoes in a greenhouse at Homan Rails Farm in the North Lawndale neighborhood.