The destruction of that little tomato signaled the destruction of all my hopes for a garden, and it saddened me. I love fresh produce, and I would not be harvesting any this year. The longer I thought, however, the less sadness I felt. Like all the other plants in my garden, that tomato hadn’t really done its part. If it had dedicated itself to its mission and lived up to its Humongous Big Good Better Best Boy name, it would never have been used as a golf ball.
In general, I am not a military type. I don’t like rules for the sake of rules, and I don’t like doing what others tell me to do, especially if they haven’t used a nice voice and said “please.” I don’t like getting up at 5 a.m. and was most unhappy when my infant son made me get up at that early hour. Me and push-ups just don’t get along.
However, I do agree with the military’s stance on toughness. Sometimes and at some places, you just have to be tough. My house is one of them. For example, if you come as a guest to my house, you’re basically on your own. There may or may not be toilet paper in the bathroom. You may have to run the dishwasher to get a clean cup for some water. You will probably have to dig deep in the cupboard to find something to snack on. And if you happen to find the brownie mix, I will probably ask you to make it up yourself. It’s not an easy life, being a guest at my house, but if you are tough enough, I would love to have you. Come on over — you’re all invited.
Plants fall into the same category. When I am in the market for a new plant, be it inside or garden variety, I go to the store and search the plant aisle for likely recruits. “Everyone who would like a home with me, please raise your hand,” I announce.
All the plants wave their little leaves around. “Me! Me! Pick me!” they call.
“I wish I could take you all,” I say. “However, I do feel that it is only fair to let you know what your life will be like if you come home with me.”
They nod their leaves in agreement and listen silently.
“Drought conditions are likely,” I tell them. “I feel that a plant must prove itself if it is to live at my home, and irregular watering is a good test.”
The young plants sigh, but they seem to accept it.
“I have young children,” I go on. “They wrestle and they kick soccer balls all around the house and the yard. They have just learned to ride bikes, but they haven’t learned to steer. Chances are that you will be crushed at least once by a child or a ball or a bike. You will have to recover from this by yourself. But you are plants, and you are always growing; I have confidence that you can do it.”
My potential recruits throw their shoulders back and lift their heads high above their pots.
“Frequent fertilization is a pipe-dream,” I continue. “A plant who is truly fit will find its own food.”
Some of the weaker plants seem to bend a little, but I am relentless.
“Tomatoes and beans, you will have to stand strong without artificial aids like stakes and strings. Those are for sissys! Inside plants, don’t start thinking that you’ll be repotted. Not at my house. You will have to make do with the containers you have. And finally, for all of you outside plants, dog pee is a certainty. My dog makes his rounds in the yard first thing every morning, and in the afternoons, the neighbor’s two dogs come over. ”
That is the heaviest blow. The smallest plants shrink back. I can see that they want no part of this life.
“So,” I conclude, “if any of you are tough, truly tough, and want to try, I am willing to take you. I will test you to the limits of your endurance, and if you are worthy, you will survive and produce phenomenal fruits. Who’s game?”
The few and the proud volunteer, and I bring them home.
That is my standard routine, and I followed it this spring when I chose my garden plants. The weak plants stayed at the store. The tallest, greenest, most vigorous plants came home with me. I planted them, gave them one good watering, and left them to prove themselves.
They failed me. I watched them and gave them pep talks all summer long. I reminded them of their production potential if only they would put their hearts into the task. When a wayward pumpkin plant suggested that I had misled it, that conditions in my garden were more like a desert than a drought, I ripped up that pumpkin plant and tossed it to the wind. I exhorted my remaining plants to focus their energies on their mission of being the best producers they could be.
But with all my efforts, my garden plants failed me. They produced five green beans. Three carrots that were one-inch long, the width of a piece of yarn, and transparent. One cucumber that bulged at the bottom like a balloon and then, overnight, deflated. Two squash that gave themselves over to the slugs. Four tomatoes that were no larger than a golf ball. My corn seeds apparently had a change of heart and were too frightened to even poke their heads out of the ground. Clearly my latest recruits were not as brave as I thought ..
Nowadays, as I’m driving past the downtown tailgate markets, I sometimes wonder if my tough policies are the most effective. Apparently, some gardens in this county are thriving. I even know some gardeners who have overflow. They bring baskets of huge tomatoes with them to work, “Take some, please,” they say to the rest of us. “We have more than we can eat. We don’t want them to go to waste.”
I wonder if these gardeners are a bunch of softies. Perhaps they have given in and water their little plants with just the right number of delicate water droplets. Perhaps they fertilize them with just the right formula of nitrogen and daintily cut dill and mayonnaise sandwiches. Then, at night, maybe they cover them gently with blankets of mulch and compost ...
Nah, I know better. They’ve just got a better pep talk than me. But I can work on that. Maybe over some push-ups.
In my article, “Heaven in a bucket,” in the Sept. 5 Smoky Mountain News, I wrote about a musician who played the fiddle to a field of blueberry pickers. I have since been informed that the instrument was a mandolin, not a fiddle. I would like to apologize for the inaccuracy: it happened three years ago, I was a long way away, I saw him from the back, and I wrongly assumed that the instrument was a fiddle. Mr. Mandolin Player, please accept my apologies, as well as my thanks for some of the most enchanting music I have ever heard.