Accidental gardener savors mystery tomatoes after Sandy

John Gorman's yard, and even his concrete patio John Gorman's yard, and even his concrete patio in Freeport, are littered with tomato plants he never planted. (Oct. 28, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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John Gorman's backyard is entangled in a delicious mystery.

Tomato plants, apparently washed onto his property by superstorm Sandy, have taken root behind his Freeport home.

The 59-year-old ship's captain first noticed the plants -- which he said he had never planted before the storm -- in June. They have grown to take up about 50 square feet in the modest backyard of his home, which is still being repaired after the storm.

He and his wife, Patricia, have harvested hundreds of the rogue fruits, giving away dozens to friends and neighbors, and turning others into soups, sauces and salads.

A horticulturalist said the puzzling plants are probably the result of Sandy flooding, which brought 6 feet of water to Gorman's yard and likely left tomato seeds from someone else's property.

Gorman said his home sustained $80,000 in damage, but the curious tomatoes have provided a respite from the stress of rebuilding his house, which had its first floor wiped out.

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"It's like the 'Attack of The Killer Tomatoes' back here," said Gorman, referencing the 1981 B-movie. "I didn't take care of them. They just grew and grew."

The uninvited guests have sprouted in three spots in the yard and have borne fruit for four months despite little care from Gorman, who only waters them occasionally.

The phenomenon of accidental growth of tomatoes and other plants because of Sandy is well-documented on Long Island, said Sandra Vultaggio, a horticulture consultant with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Riverhead.

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Heavy flooding moves bulbs, seeds, rhizomes and other plant parts from property to property, Vultaggio said. After Sandy, that migration resulted in new plants growing in unexpected places, she said.

The Cornell cooperative started receiving calls about unexpected plant growth in April and the calls became a "common theme" through the summer, Vultaggio said.

Some of Gorman's tomatoes are creeping through a concrete patio near his back deck. Out of curiosity, he has since attempted to grow his own tomatoes in a pot; they are wilting and dying, while the migrant tomatoes continue to flourish.

Gorman's migrant fruits are tough and fleshy cherry tomatoes, noticeably less sweet than the grocery store variety, he and his wife, who is in charge of marinara and soup, said.

"The sauce is good, the tomato soup I thought was delicious," Patricia Gorman said.

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It's difficult to say how many Freeport residents have experienced surprise crops, said Laura Cardoso, an administrative assistant in the village building department. None have complained, she said.

Cardoso is among those affected -- her home in South Freeport has about 10 square feet of surprise tomato plants.

"It's bizarre," she said. "But they were delicious."

Gorman agreed that his tomatoes are a welcome visitor. He's had his fill, though, and is considering rounding up the rest of the crops and giving them to charity.

"I could feed half of Freeport with these. I'll give them to anybody who wants them."

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