Tomato Envy

My name is Brande, and I suffer from Tomato Envy.

It’s true. I wish I was a better person. I wish I could celebrate the successes of others without comparing them to my seemingly inferior accomplishments. It’s a blessing and a curse, because without a somewhat competitive spirit, I might not ever strive to be better and more.

I have, for years, tended to and maintained what I think is a lovely perennial garden in our yard. I’m no expert, but every year I learn many new things. I learn how to deal with plant diseases and pests that I never knew existed. I learn which plants need pruning when. My first infestation with Japanese beetles this year forced me outside every morning to hand pick the hungry, sometimes even publicly-fornicating, little bastards from my roses and plop them into a jar of soapy water, completely without remorse. Vegetable gardening, however, seemed like the final frontier to me, and it was super intimidating.

Tomato Envy
Enviable Tomatoes

With everything I was reading about food and my love of all things that grow, I knew I needed to give vegetable gardening a whirl. So, I got started this year with a couple of raised beds and a book called All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. Mr. Bartholomew’s book made it all sound easy and rewarding, and I followed the book to the letter. Several people told me that if I grow anything at all, it should be tomatoes. A friend told me, “They’re so easy! Anyone can grow them, and you’ll have more than you know what to do with.” Sounds great to me! I had visions of big wicker baskets full of all sorts of colorful tomatoes, plenty for fresh eating and probably even enough to can for the winter.

I started saving spent eggshells because I read that tomato plants like them crushed up in their soil. I started my heirloom seeds indoors, under a sophisticated grow light apparatus with a heat mat to aid germination. They were coddled. When I finally transplanted them outside, I followed Mel Bartholomew’s advice. I removed the bottom few leaves, bent the lower stem, and planted the seedlings deeply to facilitate a stronger root system. I kept them watered, but not too watered. They were in the sunniest spot I could find, and I waited patiently for harvest time.

Tomato EnvyYou probably know what's coming. Yes, that’s right. Very few tomatoes were produced on some of the ugliest and most unhealthy looking plants I’ve seen. The leaves curled up and looked dry and leathery. The stems got all thick and started twisting, making the plants look distorted. My first round of tomatoes all had a rotten spot on the end. Blossom end rot, as it turns out, is common and can be cleared up by giving your tomato plants a calcium supplement, which I did. I started getting tomatoes on the vines that were green, and it took forever for them to ripen. All in all, I was able to muster enough tomatoes to have several tomato salads during the summer. There was no abundance of cherry tomatoes for roasting, and I had to buy my canning tomatoes from the farmers market.

Just as I was about to stop beating myself up, we were invited to have a glass of wine with our neighbors down the street. Dan and Nancy have been growing their own vegetables for many years in their suburban backyard. Dan has an elaborate set-up at home for brewing his own beer. Nancy grows rare orchids, starts seeds in her greenhouse, and makes her own vanilla extract from homegrown vanilla beans. When we walked into their kitchen that night, I saw what had been my own vision: baskets full of succulent, shiny, perfectly imperfect heirloom tomatoes. Nancy told me that for three straight weekends, she and Dan did nothing but make sauce for their freezer. They could barely keep up with all the tomatoes. “That’s amazing!” I exclaimed, forcing a smile through my clenched jaws. When I told them of my own lackluster yields, they nodded sympathetically and offered suggestions. Dan said, “Yeah, I don’t know why we get so many. If you must know, we’re rather haphazard about our garden. Always have been.” Nice, real nice. I counted to ten slowly, reminded myself that it was my first year with my garden. It had to get better.

Planting Tomatoes
I thought I did everything right.

The next day, my husband walked over to another neighbor’s house to borrow a couple of tools. Glen is a great neighbor and is always good for having tools and helping us with random handyman chores. He’s also just a little left of center, if you get my drift, with a penchant for collecting stuff. I mean lots and lots of stuff which he “stores” in his driveway and in various disabled vehicles lining the street in front of his house. He welds in his backyard at night. Sometimes, my husband and I can enjoy wine and a free fireworks show as we look towards Glen’s and see sparks flying up behind his house in the night sky.

TomatoesWhen my husband came home from Glen’s, he said, “Wow! You oughta go over to Glen’s and check out his tomatoes in the backyard! It’s unbelievable.” So, I did. There, in what looked like a weed patch in his overgrown lawn, were the most amazing tomato plants, straining and drooping under the weight of clusters of red and green tomatoes. Glen said, “Yeah, one of my girlfriends bought some plants from Home Depot, and I pulled up the grass right here and put ‘em in. I can’t believe they lived, seeing as how I wasn’t even around to water them during the whole month of August. Look at ‘em! They’re everywhere.” They were everywhere, and boy was I pissed. Still am.

Next year, I will do it all again. Come February, I will have forgotten my frustration once the seed catalogs arrive in the mail. I will struggle to pare down the varieties of tomatoes I order. I will have the same delusions of grandeur all over again. I will buy more canning jars. More than struggle to grow a bountiful harvest of tomatoes, I will struggle with learning to love the process in hopes of greater success to come.

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