Tomato Anticipation

Gardening, like second marriages, is often a triumph of hope over experience. It certainly is that for me, every spring. Witness the fact that it is now mid-March in South Dakota, and I have just planted tomatoes. In peat pots on the kitchen table, of course—I may be a cockeyed optimist, but that doesn’t mean I’m dumb.

As a gardener, I have become a specialist. Oh, I tried diversification for a couple of years. I spaded, mulched, watered, fertilized, and weeded with energy and concentration. My harvest was a couple dozen stunted ears of sweet corn, a few heads of bitter broccoli with a high protein content (think cabbage worms), a few cantaloupe killed prematurely by vine-munching grasshoppers, and a handful of mediocre cucumbers. But I did succeed in growing tomatoes—with that rich, red-ripe flavor that makes their supermarket counterparts taste like inadequately-ripened styrofoam.

By now, tomatoes are the only thing I plant. I always start them early from seeds instead of waiting to buy bedding plants, because every year I indulge in the fantasy of eating fresh tomatoes by the end of June. One year, indeed, we might have done exactly that if it hadn’t been for that early summer hailstorm. So the possibility remains, strong enough to persuade me into buying fresh potting soil, peat pots, and seeds every March.

I carefully fill each pot, then tuck three tiny, dry tomato seeds into each one. It is incredible to me that each one holds inside its desiccated self the potential of a sturdy plant, several feet high, bearing an abundance of fruit. Later, assuming they all sprout, I will have to choose the strongest-looking plant in each pot and ruthlessly pull the other two, a procedure that always gives me a pang.

Remember in kindergarten or first grade when you got to plant a couple of seeds in a paper cup or a small glass jar? Remember the sense of anticipation as you watered the bare dirt and checked each day to see if anything was coming up yet? And then all at once, like magic, there it was—a tiny green shoot. Then with amazing speed, maybe even by the next day, tiny leaves had unfolded. Then more leaves appeared, and the bean or marigold or whatever it was grew and thrived—at least until you took it home for Mother’s Day and forgot to water it, and it drooped over the side of the cup and died.

Every year, as I carefully plant my tomatoes and gently water them and set them in a sunny window, I feel the same sense of awe and anticipation that I remember from first grade. That is why I have become a gardener—albeit a fumbling and often unsuccessful one. Because, much as I love the taste of fresh tomatoes, gardening for me is less about harvesting than about planting.

It would be different, of course, if we depended on my garden for significant portions of the winter’s food supply. Because we don’t, I have no need to plant seriously and practically. My garden is a small indulgence in one corner of our generous yard. It’s a place I can reacquaint myself with earthworms and dirt under my fingernails, a place to savor the smell of fresh warm dirt and the feel of the spring sun on my back and the satisfying labor of digging. Each year it is a tangible expression of hope and anticipation.  Each spring it is a chance to start over.

And, who knows, this just might be the year that I celebrate my June birthday with a fresh, ripe tomato from my garden.

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