My plants all died last week after an early cold snap. A carapace of snow covered the long line of tomato and pepper plants in pots on my back deck. The sub-freezing temperatures also killed my first-ever attempt at flowers. My two big planters of dianthus and marigold hung on bravely for a day, before they too surrendered their green and succumbed to winter.
I feel slightly traumatized. Long-time readers of this blog will find this surprising. I used to think of myself as a sort of anti-gardener. (Check out “When Juniper Attacks,”“Gardening?” and “ Feed Me,Seymour! ” if you’re interested.) Before sarcoidosis slowed me down, I was a woman in motion. Who would want to sit in the dirt, fussing over dull plants when you could be hiking, skiing, cycling, or traveling? Gardening felt like a more work-intensive version of making your bed. No matter how much effort you put into it, no matter how precise your sheet corners are, you’re still going to mess up the sheets when you sleep it. And the bed, like plants, won’t ever have a conversation with you. I claimed to have a black thumb.
But then last year, Jay brought home a carton of spindly tomato seedlings. One of his co-workers cultivates dozens of tomato varietals, and brings in hundreds of them each spring to share with folks at the office. I left them on the porch for a couple of days. Since I’m not always on the go anymore, I couldn’t get away from the plants. They sat in their box like a question I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer. Their quiet presence out there, on the other side of the door, drew me out to them.
The seedlings had whimsical names that were half-poem, half-pun: Anna Banana Russian, Burning Spear, Garden Peach, Tiny Tim, Sungold. I rolled their names around my mouth, but it was from their smell that I got my first access to their essence. A growing tomato plant does not produce a beautiful scent. It brings a whiff of damp soil, of salt, of bitter lemons. The smell of Dylan Thomas’ “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” is of a tomato plant.
I knew I wasn’t well enough to dig up my back yard, so I researched growing the tomato plants in pots on my deck. I didn’t know how often to water them, that you are supposed to fertilize them, or that pruning them is essential. I ended up with a dozen twining and surging plants that would have been right at home in The Little Shop of Horrors.
This year, I did a little better. Jay’s generous co-worker brought in pepper plants along with the tomato plants. I got them potted and watered right away. Since I wasn’t wholly clueless, I was less anxious about the plants on my second attempt. I stretched out the time it took to water them. I spent time with them. I caught myself doing nothing more than sitting next to them, inhaling their scent. I felt a little bit like Toad in the Frog and Toad story about Toad’s first garden. He was so excited for his seeds to blossom that he stayed up at night, reading and singing to them. Then he got impatient. While I might not have screamed at my plants, “Now seeds start growing!” I confess to perhaps thinking, “Now plants start producing!”
And they did. It felt like the vines were bare for an eternity, and then suddenly, on a hot July day, tiny tomatoes were popping everywhere. I dragged Jay and Andrew out with me, and they “oohed and aahed” appropriately. They became more excited after my first harvest, when we feasted on handfuls of sweet tomatoes that tasted better than any we’d ever bought. The peppers arrived a couple of weeks later. For most of the summer, the nightshades kept us in vegetables. We had my tomatoes nearly every night with dinner.
I kept my babies alive for the first cold nights of autumn by covering them with every spare blanket and towel we own. I’d race out in the morning to let them be warmed by the diminishing sun. But one morning, I found the blankets frozen to the plants, and the leaves beneath them shriveled and shocked.
I felt like crying. I know that gardening is a reminder of universal life seasons. Everything grows up, thrives, and then wanes. I know that my tomatoes and peppers had a good run. Still, when I look out at the withered remains if my once-mighty friends, melancholy catches in my throat.
I loved my tomatoes for growing, even through my sick days when I was too dizzy to make it out to water them. I loved them for being strong and beautiful. I loved them for giving their fruit to us, and for teaching Andrew their miracle of converting soil, sunshine, and water into tangible sustenance. And I especially love them for teaching me how to sit down and watch them grow.
Do you have a green thumb or a black thumb? What has helped you learned to sit still?