The process of watching a tomato plant grow is a wonderful thing. With tomato season starting soon, dream of your summer tomatoes.
It all began in March.
Our mailman inserted a small packet through the mail slot and the future fell gently onto our wooden hallway floor. I had ordered this little envelope of hope from a remote seed grower who promised his product was both organic in certification and heirloom in heritage. I opened the delivery with the same care as if it contained magic fairy dust.
Inside there were 33 seeds, miniature worlds of energy and genetics that could, with care, produce a miracle right here in my tiny suburban yard. The seeds were light tan, flat, and about the size of a 0 written with my word processor. I counted them, and counted them again. Some of the seeds looked healthier than others. The ones I determined healthier were bigger and more uniform in shape.
I immediately began to worry. “What if some of them don’t germinate? What if they produce weak plants? And if all the seeds germinate, how will I have the heart to cull the scrawny plants, preserving only the hardiest for the garden?” The anxiety was already too much to bear and I had not yet set the seeds to soil. Maternity wards have men who pace the hallways with much the same level of concern.
Weeks before, while scrutinizing the plant catalogs, I chose an heirloom tomato seed with the beautiful name of “Rose.” The catalog promised this plant would produce a deep pink, meaty and flavorful fruit that would rival all other tomatoes for taste. It was indeterminate, so staking was necessary, and the fruit would mature in about 78 days.
I decided that there was no time to waste. The adjustable grow-light apparatus must be constructed. The potting soil must be spread in the germinating trays. By the first weekend of May, which happens to be Derby weekend here in Kentucky, the seedlings must be ready for transplanting into their permanent plot in the universe. There they would spread roots below and develop dark green foliage above. And if my dreams would unfold as planned (a rarity) we would pick our first globe of wonder in early July.
In the initial phase of germinating the seeds, I spread them evenly atop the soil in a plastic tray that was approximately 2 inches deep. I wet the soil thoroughly, covered the tray with an aluminum foil tent and placed the whole package on top of a heating pad that I use when whelping puppies. Seeds need heat to germinate and March in my house is anything but warm.
The foil tent trapped moisture and warmth and my seeds germinated in a remarkable 3 days ... all of them! There was not one old maid in the bunch. They produced light green stalks with a pair of darker green leaves with some still holding on to their seed pods.
Once germination was complete, I quickly removed them from the heat and placed them under the grow light apparatus I set up in my study. The instructions ordered me to keep the grow-light bulbs a mere 2 inches above the plants lest they reach too hard for the light and grow “leggy.” I did so, I watered them regularly, and in my desire to give the little buggers all the love I could manage, I fed them a mixture of ½ teaspoon of Miracle Grow diluted in a gallon of water.
The first indication of trouble was apparent when I realized the plants were growing about 2 inches a day. I quickly calculated at that rate they would grow taller than the grow-light apparatus long before the horses at Churchill Downs were in the starting gate. I began to worry again. This appeared disastrous but I could not impede their growth. I watched them with much concern as they grew to look like tall, spindly marijuana plants against a backdrop of hemp wallpaper adorning my study walls.
Eventually I sought out professional advice. I consulted with a retired plant nursery owner and he diagnosed the problems as too much water, too much light, and too much food. He advised that in all future seedling rodeos I restrain from feeding them, water only when they mildly wilt, and reduce the hours of light exposure to about 12 a day. In essence, I had loved them too much, and subsequently, spoiled the little devils until they grew into rebellious teenagers. Now I had to plant them in their new home with the same care I would devote to wild teens.
I buried them in shallow 3-foot-long trenches so they could no longer exert their will over mine. At first they looked very sad. What were once 36 inches of stalks and foliage were now reduced to 6-inch protrusions sticking out of the garden floor. They were additionally dwarfed by the massive 6-foot wooden stakes I pounded into the ground behind them. They looked puny and weak and I worried that they would not grow and that they would never bear fruit.
I watered them as instructed, returned the shovel to the corner of the garage and surrendered to whatever fate Mother Nature had planned when she packed an entire universe of energy into my forlorn seedlings. I waited and I watched and I was very quickly amazed.
The first week my plants sat in the ground and did not grow at all. What I did not know at the time was that they were resting. They were resting for an Olympic performance of growth that I could never have imagined. Each week, almost every day of each week, I had to tie the new growth to the wooden stakes in order to keep the plants from falling over due to their own weight. For some of the plants I ran out of room on the first stake so I pounded in a second one to use as support for the ever-growing foliage.
My plants were healthy. They were tall and lush. They were beautiful and soon produced clusters of dainty yellow flowers on the strongest foliage limbs. I watered them, I suckered unwanted shoots, and my pride grew with each passing day of June because I could foresee a bumper July crop of backyard, homegrown tomatoes.
The weather turned hot and the nights were unusually warm. I was told that tomatoes ripen quickly when the nights are warm. My stalks were burdened with bunches of green tomatoes that had grown to the size of softballs. Most of them were almost 6 inches in diameter, but not one was turning red. I worried again. “What if they never turn to the beautiful deep pink like the catalog picture? Was I a victim of Photoshop? Will my culinary choices be reduced to fried green tomatoes every morning?”
But gradually, like the sneaky little darlings they had become, they began to ripen. And they ripened with a vengeance! One day I had no ripe tomatoes and I was forced to buy one at the supermarket. The following day I picked 6 pounds of deep-pink beauty and proudly set them on the kitchen counter for all to admire. The next day I picked another 4 pounds, and the next, and the next, and the next. I stored tomatoes everywhere. I became the most popular gardener in my neighborhood. Everyone got fresh tomatoes. I took them to work.
We made basil tomato sauce stored in Mason jars. We froze quart bags of stewed tomatoes for winter soups. We ate fresh tomato salads in sweetened white vinegar with cucumbers and green bell peppers. I felt like the tomato king. All of my efforts beginning in March had paid off. The miracle of stored energy and DNA made me look good.
My garden was a success. I could quit worrying. It was now time to make another BLT, pour a tall glass of sweet tea and rummage through the pages of the gardening catalog to plan next season’s menu. Time was of the essence, I told myself. March is just a few months away.
Fredrick Pfister has written for Sporting Classics and Of Woods and Waters (University of Kentucky Press). He is the author of Last Casts and Stolen Hunts (Live Oak Press) and resides in Lexington, Kentucky.