Really small – that was my first thought when I opened the package of Black Crim tomato seeds. How many times had I seen tomato seeds in my life? But it occurred to me that I had never seen them without the tomato. I was supposed to grow a seedling, that would form a plant, that would bear fruit, from each of these tiny specks; seemed a little far fetched to me. But excitement overrode cynicism. The picture in my mind of those beautiful purplish red tomatoes illustrated on the seed packet growing in my garden spurred me on. It had been 25 years since I had grown anything more than herbs. Now I had room for lots and lots of tomatoes and whatever else I could dream of growing.
At the tender age of 18, when I was not much more than a sprout myself, I planted my first vegetable garden. I lived in Southern California and, as they say, everything grows there. Being a Californian though, I didn’t know this and was oblivious to the privileges of my birth, such as great soil and Goldilocks weather. I worked my plot like it was the Mojave Desert.
It was a bountiful debut! I remember the taste of the potatoes, so creamy and full of flavor. And the corn, that everyone said could not be grown at the beach, was tall and sweet and worth the hoeing, weeding and watering.
But that was all a long time ago. Suburban landscapes, more than full time jobs, kids, dogs, and swimming pools squeezed the vegetable garden from my outdoor repertoire. Now a naturalized Texan, it began to dawn on me how good I had had it back in the day. Our move to two acres off Hudson Bend Road during one of the worst droughts in history was a severe reminder that “This is Texas baby.” And my enthusiasm was curbed by the reality that I had no soil and it was going to be hotter than blazes. (Little did I know just how hot it would be).
Not to be easily daunted, my husband and I, with the help of our son, set about constructing and filling raised beds. Three 15 X 6 foot large beds were built with wood we salvaged from our property and supplemented with 2X4s from the lumber store. Then, we added two smaller beds that were mainly for herbs. Working on weekends, these beds took weeks to finish and fill. We purchased good garden soil and added our homemade compost that had the luxurious addition of composted horse manure donated by the two 1000 pound pets we keep in our backyard; Jewel, our four year old paint mare, and Bubba, the respected elder gelding owned by our neighbor.
In the meantime, my little flats of tomato seeds were taking shape. After planting the miniscule seed in my custom potting mix, I cared for and nurtured them like a hen on her nest. I watered them, moved them into the sun, out of the rain, back to the sun, and back out of the cold; much of this before I ever saw a seedling break the soil.
Alas, first one, then another, was born. And, amazingly, they grew and grew, tall, strong and straight. When it was time for them to move to their grown up digs they were ready to face the world. They went in the ground along with the butter beans, squash, okra, cucumber, muskmelon, eggplant and peas. Most of this assortment was also grown from seed. But those seeds went right into the raised beds, and while I fussed over them also, they didn’t worry me as much as my little tomato seeds had.
It seemed like we would never get to that point though. We always had one more thing to do before we could actually bring ourselves to put the plants and seeds in the ground. One day a wonderful friend showed up with a few plants to add, and if it hadn’t been for his “get ‘ur done” attitude, my husband and I would still be trying to fence out the bunnies. (Who never showed up, by the way).
With all the little ones snuggled in their beds, we watered and waited. It was so exciting to see the melon seed break through the earth, along with the squash and butter beans. And in the bed filled with nothing but, the tomatoes grew and grew and started to put out tiny flower buds! Wonderful!
Daily I examined these first buds and soon went to worrying as, one by one, the buds started to fall from the plants. “Blossom Drop” a friend told me. Blossom Drop?? Okay. Take a deep breath, Gina. “Stop hovering” I told myself. I remembered that being a good gardener was like being a good parent. Stay calm, watch and wait, don’t overreact. With presence of mind, you can try something different if things continue to present a problem. So I kept watering and feeding our plants with enriching fish emulsion and liquid seaweed. (In California I had worked the seaweed right from the beach into the soil before planting). Lo and behold, one day, the flowers stopped falling off and they began to make themselves into the base for little green bulbs that were the baby tomatoes. Yeah! We are going to have tomatoes.
There is something about being a gardener, though, that invites fret. The bushes became loaded with tomatoes, lots and lots of green tomatoes. Days and weeks went by and not a one was showing signs of maturity or that beautiful color that was on the seed packet. What is wrong?? There has got to be something wrong. Again, it was time to breath. So we continued to water and feed. And it wasn’t too long before, along with the lovely little melons that were forming on my cantaloupe vines, we had red and ripe tomatoes. Just like the picture on the packet.
Cutting into these gorgeous fruit was thrilling. We had other varieties of tomatoes in the bed, but the Black Crims were big and the most beautiful color, the taste better than fine wine.
As so often happens with gardening, everything ripened faster than we could eat it and there where lots of these deep red jewels. The joy of sharing fruit of your labor is an aspect of the garden that I hadn’t contemplated. I grew the garden to provide food for our family. In the past, I had been given tomatoes and peppers by friends who had grown more than they could eat, and loved receiving them. But I hadn’t anticipated the fun of giving them. It really beat coupon clipping!
As I stored the food we did keep, I realized that I was darn sure going to eat it. I am as guilty as the next person of buying more than I need and finding it spoiled in my crisper. Gazing at my precious edibles I started to gain an appreciation of each bite I would put in my mouth. What had gone into getting it here! It would not be wasted. With each meal I found ways to showcase these works of art, not mine, certainly, but the works I had fostered.
The pace of my life, or maybe just my priorities, has provided little time for sanctity and sacrament. Growing tomatoes has shown me that I need it. I love food, love to cook. I would never have considered myself as one who eats to live. But when I reflect on it, I do eat that I might live, and that is no small thing.
Food gives me the nourishment I need to sustain my strength and my spirit. Growing tomatoes and all the other lovely vegetables from my garden has brought sanctity to my partaking of them. It all tastes better; I eat it slower, and relish it. My, now, first hand knowledge of how much is given to bring each bite to the table has made me grateful and sensitive to the blessing of abundance that I have had my whole life and taken for granted. If you ask me, we should all grow tomatoes.