My mother used to have a file card pinned up by the phone. On it, in her compulsively tidy printing, it said “A garden can be fun…if you don’t have one.”
I am not a gardener. Plants recoil in terror when they see me coming, not because I am malicious, but because I have no feel for it. My brother and I were occasionally dragooned into doing yard- or garden-related chores–mostly weeding–but I don’t recall either of us having a gift for it. My mother was a demon weeder: if plants recoiled from her it’s because they knew that their number was seriously up. We had a big rock garden at the end of the terrace, with herbs and other plants in it, and that was Mom’s baby, gardening-wise. But my father loved being out in the sun, digging up the earth, planting things, and he wanted a garden. With a capital G.
We were still living in New York, but Mom, my brother and I spent the summers at the Barn, with my father arriving on Friday and leaving on Monday. During a long weekend he could get a lot of gardening in. The first summer he tried it he encountered joy and opposition from the local wildlife: woodchucks ate half the greenery and deer ate the rest. All except for the tomatoes.
Google informs me that the average yield for a tomato plant is about 25 lbs. Figure that a tomato weighs between 1/5 and 1/4 pound. We’re talking about roughly 100 tomatoes per plant. But my father didn’t know that. That first summer he planted 25 tomato plants.
At first it was bliss: he would go out in the afternoon, trailing my brother and me like wee little clouds, pick a tomato, salt it lightly, and take a big bite before passing it to us kids for our judgment. I must say, there are few things in life more fabulously delicious than a ripe tomato still warm from the sun.
However delicious the tomatoes were, however, there was no way our household could consume 2500 tomatoes over the course of the summer. Dad brought bags of produce back to the city to give away–first to the people who worked in his office, then to his clients. When school began and we went back to NY the plants were still producing, so we brought sacks of tomatoes to school, to the house of friends, to neighbors. It got so people flinched when they saw us with brown paper bags.
And the tomatoes just kept on coming.
My mother learned to make green tomato pie (my culinarily adventurous brother and I did not care for it). She made enough jars of pickled green tomatoes that there were still some in the cellar ten years ago (I would not have eaten them–I think they were only good for the Smithsonian at that point). Finally the last of the tomatoes succumbed to frost, and the vines withered.
The next year my father put down black plastic on the ground, which not only kept weeds from sprouting, but scared the local livestock away from the plants. And he only planted five tomato vines; from that point on the balance of tomatoes to zucchini, lettuce, green peppers and Brussels sprouts was much more reasonable. And we still got to eat tomatoes fresh from the vine, warm from the sun, with a sprinkle of salt. Yum.
Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf. Her first two Regency romances, Althea and My Dear Jenny, are now available from Book View Café. She has just completed The Salernitan Women, set in medieval Italy, and a new Sarah Tolerance novel, The Sleeping Partner (which will be out in October of 2011 from Plus One Press).