Around the bend: Tomato crop boost leads to overkill
Proof I’m not a good gardener: I’m afraid of my tomatoes.
It’s not the kind of hair-trigger fear that enables me to leap backwards over a 6-foot tall row of beans when I see a spider. It’s more of a low-grade foreboding of things to come later in the summer. I have too many tomato plants and I’m scared.
Last year, I attempted to grow a large crop of tomatoes to preserve for winter. I succeeded, but at a price. As it turns out, tomatoes don’t jump off the vine and seal themselves in canning jars while you watch Netflix. I survived the many hours of picking, washing and sweating through the canning process only by focusing on the future satisfaction of having a year’s worth of delicious homegrown tomatoes on the shelf.
Except we ran out in January.
I was devastated. Every time I placed a commercial can of tomatoes in my shopping cart I was reminded of my homesteading inferiority. Even worse, in order to avoid a similar shortage this coming year I’d need to grow — and pick and process — at least double the amount of tomatoes. That would mean abstaining from my favorite hobbies, namely sleeping and eating meals sitting down, for much of the fall.
In April, in my typical make-things-harder-than-they-need-to-be fashion, I started 20 organic heirloom tomato plants from seed and set them on a sunny windowsill. (Just kidding. If you recall, between April and June Addison County only saw 6.5 total hours of sunlight.)
Eight gray, rainy weeks later, I had 20 stunted little seedlings hardly strong enough to hold up their single pairs of baby leaves. In June, I planted them — with tweezers — and hoped a gentle breeze wouldn’t blow them away.
I shouldn’t have worried. Because while I was inside coddling my frail seedlings, hundreds of random tomato plants had started popping up throughout the garden.
I know why, too. Toward the end of last summer, when my daily reaction to the harvest had turned from “Whee, another bushel of tomatoes!” to “Where’s a good dose of late blight when you need it?” I left a few tomatoes on the vine. Their seeds had survived the Vermont winter and enjoyed garden-wide distribution during spring rototilling.
When I complained about the cover crop of unexpected tomato plants my husband said, “So pull them.”
It wasn’t like these were evil weeds. These were enthusiastic go-getters, beloved offspring of the tomatoes I had worked so hard to raise the previous summer. Still, there were just too many.
Steeling myself, I began yanking volunteer plants, apologizing to each one individually and thanking it for its service but explaining that I just didn’t have a spot for it at this time. For every 10 I pulled, I saved one or two to replant at the bottom of the garden, purely out of guilt. Still, I cried myself to sleep that night.
The next day, I forced myself to pull another 50 plants, but repotted 10 to give to a friend, as a peace offering to the tomato gods. I also let another 10 — all right, 15 — volunteers stand wherever they happened to be growing.
My 20 little homegrown seedlings are growing well; they alone will supply me with more tomatoes than Heinz uses in a year. But now, because I’m soft, I’m also stuck with dozens of unneeded self-sown tomatoes that are going to produce enough fruit to bury me.
And they’re gloating about it.
Yesterday, for example, when a breath of wind blew through their young leaves, I heard the ungrateful plants whispering to me in a menacing tone: “Clear your calendar for September and October, girlfriend; we are going to own you.”
So that’s what it’s come down to: The very tomatoes I spared are threatening me. A more practical, less kind-hearted gardener would have mown them down on the spot.
I, however, backed slowly out of the garden, willing myself not to break into a run.
It’s one of only three things I know about growing tomatoes: (1) Plant them in well-drained soil, (2) stake or cage them to keep the vines off the ground and (3), above all else, remain calm; tomatoes can sense fear.