Archives for posts with tag: vegetables

Lessons from the Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s harvest time. One of the strangest things I find about gardening is how many gardeners plant and tend, but never harvest. For me, harvesting is the whole point, so those non-harvesters leave me scratching my head. If you don’t want to harvest, why not go with flowers? I’ve seen it often enough that it no longer surprises me. I think they fall into three categories: Those who plant for the visual payback (see my earlier post, “Gardeners/Florists”); those who like the idea of fresh from the garden food, but who, when push comes to shove, don’t like to cook; and finally those who overplant, and can’t possibly keep up with it when the garden starts to mature. (I think we’ve all been there from time to time—at the moment I’m having a little trouble keeping up with the crookneck.) Occasionally, you’ll get hit with a heat wave and things will bolt—and it’s a mad dash to eat up before it all goes bitter.

I’ve said before that one of my favorite things is to walk in the garden in the late afternoon to let what’s ripe determine my menu. More than once, since I’ve been here, the garden has been my salvation—funds were tight and having this amazing bounty took the pressure off the budget. And, if you can, the bounty continues through the winter months. New polls, released yesterday, revealed that far more Americans, than one would expect in this land of plenty, have gone hungry in this past year. I worry that that may continue, given the drought-parched fields in the Midwest this season. Food prices will have to respond and that will put the pinch on family budgets. I wish more people found the kind of solace and pleasure in gardening that I do. There is no down side, it’s food at its freshest and healthiest, it’s relaxing and enjoyable and it brings us closer to our most basic connections to the planet. What’s not to like?

Yesterday, I was poking around and I noted what should be obvious, but now that we’re in full season, is proven out by the garden. We have just over a dozen pepper plants. There are seven green/red bell peppers (depending on how long you wait) and the rest are a variety of sweets and hots. Some of them came to the garden late, refugees from too long in too small pots. Now, at mid-season, despite many weeks of equal treatment, you can still tell which was which, with some very real impact on output. Those that were put in young, and early, have filled out with many branches and leaves (which shade the peppers and prevent sunburn.) They are bearing peppers now, but they are also putting out new blossoms, promising a long pepper-bearing season. The ones who came in spindly and late, never developed a full canopy. They, too, are bearing but some of those peppers have their shoulders burned from the sun. They need extra water, since their more sparse foliage doesn’t shield them from the sun, and the soil in their buckets bakes. And, those plants didn’t branch out as much, leaving less foliage and fewer end buds for new blossoms. So our leggy, late arrivals will end up producing less than half the peppers as their somewhat pampered brethren.

There’s a potent argument for taking care early for a good crop. That requires knowing your climate, and timing your starts. (Especially peppers and eggplants which are soooooooo finicky about germination temperatures.) If you start too early, the garden isn’t ready when your starts are, and you risk leggy, root-bound transplants or plants that can be shock-dwarfed by a chilly transplant home. Taken beyond the garden, the message is that any new endeavor fares best if its needs are met early on. It’s a pretty common sense concept, but one too often lost in the throes of gardening, and rushing around harried in life generally. Still, as a gardener I’m sometimes surprised by the unexpected. Last year, some sorry cabbages, spindly and finally rescued late in the season, ended up delicious, their flavor piqued by the frost that nipped at their necessarily late harvest. This is tough territory for me, and many gardeners, who have trouble giving up on any little plant. But this year’s peppers have convinced me to be more orderly in my starting and planting practices. I’m still left with the problem of having to turn away orphans from well-meaning friends and neighbors though, and I’m not sure I’m up to it.

There’s another lesson in the garden. It’s a comeuppance for me. I did my second round of starts for peppers and eggplants a little late. My first set took forever, which I later learned was because they are particular about temperatures. The second set was a mad dash to try to fill in the buckets. In my rush, I wasn’t so organized about labeling. They sprouted early and I got them into their bucket homes as soon as the sprouts were strong enough. Now that it’s midseason, I see that some of the plants in the eggplant buckets are peppers and vice versa. Not a real problem, but a bit of an embarrassment. Those little label-sticks are important.

I’ve been gardening in a serious way for over thirty years now and still, every year, the garden teaches me something new.

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The Question of Corn

A.V. Walters

It’s a tough call, especially if space and/or water are limited. Yet, what summer is complete without that incredible, mid-season jolt of fresh sweet corn?

At this point, I have to disclose that I grew up in The Valley of the Jolly (Ho, Ho, Ho) Green Giant. No, I’m not kidding. I lived just a little over a mile from the Green Giant canning plant where they processed Niblets corn. It was a rich agricultural area—Green Giant grew corn, Heinz grew tomatoes there, and it was generally considered the market-garden, banana belt of Southwestern Ontario. We weren’t farmers, but we knew farmers. When I was really little, the fields behind our house were strawberry fields. Time passed and the area eventually filled in with houses. Still, farming was an ever-present part of the economy. In high school I de-tasseled corn for Funk’s Hybrid during the summer.

While I never much liked canned, store-bought vegetables, Niblets corn was one of the better options. But fresh, their corn was incredible. If you found yourself driving behind a Green Giant corn truck (piled high with fresh cobs), you’d follow it and, occasionally, a bump or sharp turn would jostle free some sweet bounty. Sometimes we’d ride our bikes out into the county to nab a few ears from the fields. Some of the farmers were known to shoot rock-salt at anyone they saw pilfering. But finally, the cannery got smart and opened a fresh corn stand during the season. Cars would line up for it. We’d ride our bikes two miles along the highway to get it, and then hightail it home with a dozen corn ears strapped to our backs. It was well worth the effort.

I tell you this because, in the corn department, I have street cred. Growing corn is the toughest calling for the home gardener, and most don’t do it right. For years my city, square-foot garden didn’t include corn. I couldn’t justify the space. Each cornstalk requires about one square foot of garden space. Also, corn must be rotated in the garden, or else serious amendment is in order to replace the nitrogen that it strips out of the soils. And, it’s thirsty. Good corn requires a lot of water. So, if you have a good, local source, growing your own doesn’t make much sense. Local is important, because the secret of great corn is freshness.

This is so much so that there’s an American mystique about garden corn. Almost all home gardeners feel compelled to throw in a row or two of sweet corn. It’s often an exercise in disappointment.  I’ve learned some about how corn grows that makes me laugh at the memory of all those suburban gardens backed with a lonely, green line of cornstalks.

Corn pollinates by wind and gravity. The tassels, up high on the plant, release the pollen needed to make up those corn kernels. The pollen falls and hits the corn silk, which transports it, one silk at a time, to each kernel. It requires a lot of pollen to populate a full ear of corn. That’s why it’s pointless to plant a single row of corn. You just can’t get adequate pollination, and so you end up with spotty, incomplete corn ears. The Native Americans knew this; they planted their corn grouped together in mounds, combined with beans and squash. But somewhere along the way the agricultural concept of corn in rows took hold and that practice was imported into the backyard garden. In a field of corn, there’s no problem, there’s plenty—rows and rows—of cornstalks to create a deep enough bench for pollination. But in the urban or suburban garden, it can be a problem. If you want to plant in rows, you need at least four of them to consolidate enough pollen.

Here, we grow our corn in circles, hemmed in by a low border of corrugated roofing material. The edging holds in the water—or at least keeps it in the vicinity of the corn. The circles are about 6 feet across and hold about 18 stalks of corn. Unlike our buckets, there’s no bottom. Corn has deep roots, so there’s no easy way to protect them from gophers. (Though last year, they left it alone.) We just plant more than we need and hope it works out. Using circles, we use less water and get more complete pollination. When I first arrived here I was hesitant about planting corn, but Elmer looked so disappointed I changed my mind. We’ve had some great corn successes, except for last year.

Last year we used an heirloom corn variety. It was the tallest corn I ever planted, towering corn! The whole farm watched and waited. And then—the corn was tasteless. Really tasteless. (Which might also explain why we didn’t have any gopher losses.) I tried eating it twice, and then gave up. The sheep wouldn’t even eat it. What a waste! The most disappointing part was that we didn’t find out until after we’d put in all the work of raising it (120 stalks of it) only to be disheartened. I confronted the woman at the seed bank—this was really terrible corn, and they needed to know!

That one disaster has really damaged my gardening reputation. So this year, I’m trying two, tried and true, heirloom varieties—on separate sides of the farm. One is Golden Bantam, a perennial favorite, and the other is Country Gentleman a sweet, silver shoe-peg corn. We’ve put in 145 stalks in two shifts—early and late. I always try to stagger my corn to extend the corn-eating season. (Sometimes this doesn’t work, because if the two shifts are too close in age, they’ll “equalize” and come ripe all at once.) This weekend we transplanted the last round of starts. I was assured that these corns will be as tasty as some of the super-sweet hybrids.

I have another motivation for a good crop, this year. This year, the devil is releasing (from hell) the new, GMO, sweet-corn varieties. In the absence of labeling, there will be no way for the consumer to know whether the corn they buy will have been modified. So, suddenly home-grown takes on new significance. Also, with the heat and drought across the country—there may not be much sweet corn around this year. So, I’m counting on our water-saving, corn rings.

We’re also going to do an experiment to see whether it makes any difference whether or not you cut off the suckers. I’ve done the internet research that says it makes no difference, but our farm foreman, Don, swears that the suckers sap the plant’s strength. It’s a small sample, but we’re going to test it in a side-by-side study. (I’ll let you know about that one.) I may be overdoing it this year, but I have to try to rehabilitate my corn standing.

Training Tomatoes

A.V. Walters

Okay, so I lied. While the watchwords of this particular phase of the garden are weed, water and wait, that’s not all that goes on. There are regular, if not daily inspections for pests and varmints. (We call it gopher patrol.) There is the usual round of reseeding for those rotating plants that we do all summer, like lettuce and beans, along with occasional reseeding where the cutworms get to the sprouts. And, there is the constant need to train the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are vines. Sure there are determinate varieties, more likely to stand upright, but the underlying, genetic predisposition of a tomato plant is much like that of a teenager—an inclination towards messy, outward sprawl. The cages provide structure, but like rules, you’ve got to be nipping at their heels (roots?) to make the program work. Given the option, your tomatoes will ignore your well-meaning cages, take the path of least resistance, and sunbathe willy-nilly all over the garden.

There are reasons why upright is better. (We didn’t get to be Homo-erectus for nothing!) I’m not just an uptight adult raised by an army-brat parent with a fixation on order.  While I understand that it wouldn’t necessarily work for a farmer (many of you already know the ugly truth about the commercially produced variety), tomatoes that are caged are less subject to moisture and ground-carried diseases, they provide more shading for the developing fruits, you don’t step on them as you try to water and harvest, and they’re easier to tend. I’m not old, but I am old enough and smart enough to avoid needless stooping.

So, everyday I try to tour the tomatoes to train them into upright, garden citizens. It’s just nudging, if you do it right. (Stand up straight! Have you done your homework?) You have to be regular about it, or they’ll get away from you. Up is not their natural inclination (especially those cherry tomatoes that always stick out at odd angles.) This week I missed two days and came back to tomatoes bent on escape. When that happens, you need to wrestle them back into place, sometimes resulting in the heartbreak of snapped branches.

Despite late planting, many of our tomatoes (especially the vinier ones) are reaching the tops of their cages. The others aren’t far behind. It’s impressive to see over thirty, four-foot tomato plants standing in formation. When I tuck those wayward branches back into position, I can see bunches of green globes hiding in the foliage, protected there from sunburn. Sometimes, if it gets too dense within the cage-column, I do a little pruning for better air circulation and harvesting access. I’m mindful of the danger of spreading disease with all this handling. If any tomato looks less than healthy, I tend to it last, or wash my hands and tools thoroughly before touching another tomato plant. So far, with the exception of one plant, the tomatoes this year are all remarkably vigorous. Without the cages, we’d be in tomato anarchy by now.

That one problem plant doesn’t have any particular symptom of disease. It’s just failed to thrive. It’s scrawny, without explanation. I’m at the point when I’m probably going to pull it out, sterilize everything in sight and replant with a new tomato plant. (I still have some orphans who’d be thrilled with the opportunity to be in first-string placement.) I hate to give up on it but the memory of last year’s blight is still fresh in my mind—then, in one foggy week the blight that came with the romas spread to more than half of the other tomatoes, turning them black and leafless, almost overnight. This year I’m being more cautious. (I’ve even planted the romas in an entirely separate garden, just in case.) Romas in exile—nice digs, but segregated confinement, nonetheless. (“It’s for their own good!”) It’s probably over-reacting but it’s working out. Those risky Romas are in the backyard where I can keep an eye on them.

All the tomatoes have fruit now, along with an outer crown of yellow blossoms. We’re looking at a steady harvest that will start by mid-August and, hopefully, run well through October. I may even have to stake those tomato cages. Even though I bought the beefiest ones on the market, this year’s tomatoes are coming in pretty big and heavy.

Food Fight!

A.V. Walters

We share this house with two cats. Both are rescue cats—one urban, one farm. They get along famously; indeed, the fact that they were already friends figured into Bob’s being invited to stay when his own home options dried up. Kilo is still king of the roost, but he is a benevolent ruler and the two get along like littermates, even though they met as adults with very different backgrounds. When I first moved here, Kilo was a sheltered, city cat. Bob, already a farm resident, would come down to visit, both me, and Kilo. Soon, Bob started teaching Kilo how to hunt gophers. Clearly, Bob won a place in my heart that way.

One thing they have in common is food issues. Kilo is allergic to most cat foods. It’s one of the reasons I kept him, after rescuing him. I, too, have many food allergies, so I stuck with him until we found a brand he could tolerate. I suppose, if I’d had to, I’d still be making him chicken & brown rice mush. I’m a softy that way.  I also had to recognize the marketing limitations of a cat who could only eat one brand of kibble. Kilo took to his limited diet with gusto—maybe too much so. After a scrawny kittenhood, he’s developed into a cat that Rick calls Butterball.

Bob loves to hunt and eat gophers. It’s an honorable farm cat tradition. The only problem is that gophers don’t agree with Bob. Poor Bob can’t keep a gopher down; he’s a gopher-barfer. If I see Bob with a gopher in his mouth, I run to close the cat door. If he insists on repeating the gopher-in/gopher-out performance, he has to do it outside.

Probably half the country could learn a lesson from Bob’s plight. The problem, from Bob’s perspective, is that the consequences of his eating habits are not immediate enough for him to make the connection. Just like most of the rest of us. It took me years to discover my food issues. But we do have the advantage of science, education and news. We can learn from the collective knowledge of the health and medical professions. Still, we don’t do so well.

We’re told that obesity is epidemic. Yet, most Americans fail to change their eating habits even when their health and waistlines are screaming the obvious. A new study shows that our biggest adversary in this may be the food industry. Processed foods are killers. They’ve been saying for over a century that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. According to the makers of highly refined, junk-filled foods, the obesity problem is an individual problem—it’s how much people eat, not what they eat. I call that a blame-the-victim defense. Just recently, science has stepped in to prove that processed foods are a big part of the problem.

The Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a clinical trial by Dr. David Ludwig. On its face, it looked like yet another analysis of weight loss/maintenance diet regimes. The study’s post-weight-loss subjects were divided into three groups. Each group represented a different theory of weight-loss maintenance—a high protein, Atkins-type diet, a standard low-fat diet (the one we’re all advised to eat, whole grains, fruits, vegies and lean proteins) and a low-glycemic diet—lower carbohydrates in total, and those were “slow carbs,” the kinds of carbohydrates that digest slower and convert to blood sugar levels at a slower rate. This diet reduced the available processed foods. Each group rotated through each of the diet regimes and each individual was kept to a set caloric intake for the duration, regardless of the diet at any particular time. The rotation through the various regimes was designed, in part, to determine whether there was a metabolic adaptation to the weight loss, or, put more simply did what the participants ate, post-weight loss, change how they metabolized those calories?

The results were notable. Clearly, regardless of caloric intake (because all the diets maintained the same calorie count), the fewer carbohydrates consumed the more energy the subjects expended—as measured by weight maintenance. The Atkins-style, high protein diet was most efficient at both weight loss and weight maintenance—it produced more energy on the given caloric intake. But this diet also produced adverse health effects, and that made it a poor, long-term choice for a healthy life-style. The low-fat diet was the worst for weight maintenance—belying decades of weight and health expert advice! The best bet for health and weight maintenance was the low glycemic diet. Its low blood sugar carbohydrate approach prevented the insulin-endocrine response that tells the body to store fat. The really interesting thing about this diet is that it completely limits highly refined and processed foods because, regardless of calorie counts, these high-glycemic foods trigger the body’s response to store fats. Processed Junk Foods Kill.

Knowing this, we can still eat well—especially lean meats, some whole grains, and our fresh from the garden vegetables cooked at home without additives—and maintain a healthy weight and metabolism. It makes perfect sense, the “obesity epidemic” has compounded since our culture abandoned fresh foods for the convenience of highly refined, packaged foods. Even more deadly are the “super sugars” —high fructose corn syrups that are abundant in processed foods and beverages. Fifty years of corporate food tinkering have brought us an epidemic of obesity, and all its attendant health woes. These high glycemic foods tap into our innate drives—it was one thing as a hunter-gatherer to crave sweets and calories, another entirely in the land of plenty, a cornucopia of processed sugars and treats.

You won’t see much of this study, out in the light of day. It’s likely to be buried in the boring science files. You see, it flies in the face of the farm-food industry. There’s no money in selling ingredients—only in the “value-added” convenience products, those same refined products loaded in high-glycemic, refined carbohydrates. Big Food is out to make you fat. And, when you get fat, they’ll tell you it’s your fault—that you eat too much. They won’t cop to the fact that their products actually disrupt your endocrine system, tricking your body into becoming a fat producing machine. (They’ve known this for years!)

Knowing this, we are armed with the solution to the Bob problem. We can determine what is good for us and change our habits so that we don’t suffer from our foods. After all, Bob is a cat. I don’t expect him to reflect deeply on his food choices. Faced with a boring bowl of kibble and a warm, fresh, wriggling gopher, Bob is making a hardwired, cat choice. The other part of the problem, the personal discipline part, is tough for everyone. We don’t want to completely eliminate desserts, or fun foods. But we do need a way to keep them in their ‘occasional’ corner. They are designed to tap into our tastes in a way that speaks to irresistible. Food scientists have carefully tinkered with the balance of sweet, salt and fat to create Frankensteins of satisfaction. Most of the time, we must resist.

A doctor friend once told me that genetics was largely responsible for choosing our life spans, that eating right and moderate exercise would only buy us a few months to a year at the end. “Then why do you harp on it so?” I demanded. He smiled, “Oh, you’ll live almost as long, you’ll just wish you hadn’t.” So we are left with the challenge of choice—the result of which will be decades away.

The other day, I was chatting about gopher garden strategies with two of the women who live on the farm. One of them, in the medical profession, paused and then asked, “Do you think you could get sick from eating a bad onion?”

“A bad onion?” I said, startled by the abrupt about face.

“Well, yesterday when I was cooking, I took the last onion. It was a little black and soft at one end, so I cut that part off and used it anyway. Then, later, I got pretty sick.”

The other woman leaned forward, “The part you ate, was it firm and looked good?”

“Yeah, looked fine, smelled fine.”

We kicked it around, but the general consensus was that the onion didn’t seem a likely suspect for her stomach upset. Who hasn’t pruned off the mushy bit of an onion from time to time?

“I guess, then, it must have been the huge piece of chocolate cake and ice cream that made me sick.”

We were quiet for a minute and then, simultaneously the other woman and I said, “Naw, must have been the onion.”

Farm Surprises

A.V. Walters

You just never know around here—something’s always up. We water the gardens by hand. I don’t mind, it’s a bucket by bucket meditation. We’ve got a couple of good watering wands—with off/on switches—that let you shut the flow between buckets. This saves water and minimizes spillover, which cuts down on weeds. I water each section twice a week, on different days for the three gardens. It takes me four to five hours each week. Usually, I get up early and try to get the watering done before the regular work day, and before the sun is high. I admit, after such a dry winter, the buckets look like little islands of green on a moonscape. The ground is very dry this summer.

Aside from the heightened fire risk, the dry doesn’t affect our garden operation. We are already operating on water conservation mode with the buckets. Elmer is concerned that, before the summer is out, we’ll be trucking water in, but he hasn’t said anything about cutting back in the garden.

That leads to the first farm surprise. About a month ago (while I was still down and out with the cold from hell) one of our pastures was plowed and planted! Not a big pasture, but it was usually occupied by 3 rams who have the thankless job of “servicing” the ewes. As I’ve said before, this is not a dirt farm, but the farm foreman convinced Elmer to let him put in a cash crop of pumpkins, zucchini, crookneck and cucumbers. Whatever possessed him to put in a field crop in the driest year in a decade is beyond me. (And, these crops are water suckers.) Don, the foreman, is conscientious, though; he set up the field with drip irrigation. At least we won’t be wasting water. I don’t know what kind of a deal he worked out with Elmer—we are all sharecroppers in one way or another.

Because of my head-cold, Don’s crop got a head start on my garden. His vegies, looking much more like a farm operation than my silly bucket brigade, are a half-foot taller than mine. Don has always had a quiet respect for my garden over the years, but now, with victory in sight, he’s ribbing me. He pulled up next to me while I was watering yesterday and asked how my midget garden was doing. I smiled and told him we had a long season and I intended to take full advantage of it. It’s a good thing, he said, because his corn is tasseling and chest high. Mine, of course, was only just transplanted from starts and is all of a strapping five inches. Okay, I know I got a late start. But, Don has to be nice to me—I have the tomatoes.

Don is giving me flack about why I don’t use drip irrigation. He sees all this hand watering as sheer insanity. Sure, it would be easier. And, for a cash crop it makes perfect sense. However, it’s a significant investment for the gizmos and tubing and a lot of work to install. I remind myself from time to time that I am a tenant here. I am a gardener, not a farmer. In five years, I’ve never had an offer of help for such a high-end investment of time and money. But for twenty bucks, I got this lovely switchable watering wand. And so I drag the hose behind me. I’m not complaining. I don’t begrudge one minute I spend in the garden. (Except for those two moments this summer, so far, when I stupidly went into the garden barefoot, and both times ended up getting stung by the wasps.)

It was the dragging hose that led to the discovery of the second farm surprise. We are not kidding when we call one of the gardens “the long garden.” It’s over 160 feet long and about 15 feet wide. There’s a hose spigot at one end. At the other end, across the lane there’s a hose spigot at a tenant’s house. I can use that. I have a 75 foot hose, which I don’t mind pulling along behind me. But I do object to having to undo the hose and haul the whole thing 160 feet to the next spigot. Rick suggested that we plumb in another spigot, halfway down the long garden, and then my hose will essentially cover the entire garden without having to move it. We consulted with Elmer, who said it was fine, just get the materials from Number Four.

Rick looked around, no pipe. He checked out the far reaches, behind the chicken barns, still no luck. Then he looked in, under and around Number 7 only to find oversized pipe and—pigs! Yes, surprise, surprise. There are now 4 pigs in a pen in the shaded area, under the far end of Number 7. Who knew? It turns out that one of the tenants approached Elmer about keeping a couple of pigs. The tenant works in a fancy high-end grocery store and brings home the gourmet, ‘unused’ produce—so essentially the pigs eat pretty well, and for free. Elmer said it was okay, but he’d buy two baby pigs, too (so we have four.) The tenant does the feeding and slopping and mucking, and at the end of the season they each get two grown up pigs. It’s a sweet deal, all the way around. I told you we were all sharecroppers in one way or another. Elmer gets his summer vegies from our garden (plus a load of winter squash) and we get to have a garden that exceeds any tenant’s dreams. Like I said, it’s a sweet deal all the way around.

So the surprises are pumpkins and pigs. But these things are supposed to come in threes, aren’t they? There’ll be one more surprise. Last year some wise guy (and we’re betting it was Don. “Who, me?”), planted carving pumpkins in the winter squash buckets.  So this year, somebody’s going to plant strange and exotic squash in his pumpkin patch. (“Who, us”?) It’ll be awhile until he figures it out. But, I can wait.

 

 

 

Tomatoes in Bondage

A.V. Walters

There’s a debate, heated sometimes, about whether tomatoes should be allowed to sprawl or whether they should be restrained in cages. This is a true measure of the farmer-gardener divide. Obviously, tomatoes grown in the field couldn’t be effectively caged. (It would interfere with all that mechanized equipment.) Here, on our farm, there’s no question. Elmer likes a tidy garden. When I came, I decided to solve that with a few cages, and now he’s a convert. (Well, an armchair convert, since it’s us doing the work.)

The garden stores offer a wide, and wild, variety of vegetable restraints. I’ve tried most of them. Any such restraint system must be analyzed in terms of ease of use, strength, durability (season to season), visual impact (yes, it matters), accessibility (if you can’t get your hand in, nothing’s coming out) and cost. Since it’s an investment, the repeat gardener wants something that will give years of use. Back in the city, over the years I tried those wooden stacking cages, standard wire cages, lattice fencing, and these lovely, but expensive, aluminum spiral stakes. Part of the consideration is just how many tomatoes do you have? With just a couple of pampered urban vines you can afford the high end stylish systems. These days, though, with thirty-three bucketed tomatoes, we have to go with industrial strength cages

We made the investment last year. We’d been monkeying around with “tomato-cage-lite” for a couple of years and they kept collapsing under the weight of the plants. So last year, we bit the bullet and bought thirty, heavy-duty, welded-wire, 54 inch cages. (That’s the gardener part of me.) They were on sale, and since I was buying so many of them, I negotiated an even better price. There was no way I’d have paid the original sticker price of over nine bucks a cage. (That’s the farmer part of me.)

Our cages are the envy of the farm. I’m not sure why, because it’s a community garden—so everyone enjoys the tomatoes. But both years that we’ve had them, they’ve elicited comments of admiration and envy. I don’t think it’s a come on—Hey honey, them’s fine restraints you got there—this is real equipment admiration, with just a touch of covetousness. They just are nice sturdy industrial strength cages and everyone who sees them, notices.

I suppose you could put in the cages when the tomatoes were just little sprites. But, that would be too easy. It’s not just that, though, in the early garden, when you’re digging in, there’s so much to do to catch the early season. You do what’s needed so you can get it all done. Then, when there’s a breather between establishing the garden and the onset of weeds, you can worry about the extras, cages, structures for pole beans and cucumbers, etc. Some years I’ve been caught short, wrestling undisciplined, sprawling, teenage tomatoes into cages. It can take up to three people to do it if you wait too long. This year was just right. I needed to sterilize the cages in bleach-water after last year’s blight, so that caused a little delay, but otherwise the timing was perfect. For the most part, the tomato plants were less than a foot tall, so the cages slid over them easily

The installation of the cages brought out the neighbors. It’s a sign; the garden is in. (Hopefully it’s also a sign that there’s no room for any more tomatoes.) We all stood out in the early evening rays, enjoying beers and garden talk. One of the neighbors nodded at how good they look and added, “You know, I’ve got a bunch of beans started…” She doesn’t know if they’re bush beans or pole beans. More buckets to dig in….beans, fit to be tied.

Orphan Tomatoes

A.V. Walters

Well, we’re behind schedule but things are finally falling into place. You know that the garden is “in,” when the stragglers begin to arrive. I have a reputation for an open door policy to wayward vegetables. I can’t help it; there is nothing so sad as a homeless vegetable-start, without a garden. They have roots, after all, and need someplace to call home and put them down.

And every spring, tomatoes are the best example. This year we put a limit on tomato plants. (Not that we don’t every year, to no avail.) We dug in twenty buckets, in the long garden, and six in our backyard (for the exiled Romas.) That was it! Right.

The buckets we dug in were supposed to accommodate the ten or twelve tomatoes I had in my sights, six Romas, and then room for the inevitable tomato contributions of my farm neighbors. On our return from vacation, we planted the Romas and eight heirloom tomato starts and put the call out. One neighbor had three, another two. I planted them in short order. I’d thought there would be more, but I was certainly game to pick up a few more for vacant buckets. I even checked with Elmer, because his cousin has a habit of late tomato start donations. No, No, he says, she would only have a couple, and those he wanted to give to his girlfriend for her garden. So the coast was clear and I could pick up enough heirlooms for the remaining buckets. That was ten days ago—I thought the tomato question was finally closed.

But, there are always tomato stragglers. The main garden sprouted it’s own volunteer, so we honored it with a bucket. This week the neighbor who’d had three late arrivals, popped up with four more! I eyed the patch. We’re starting to get heirloom duplicates. Two black cherry tomatoes, two brandywines, two black crims. The new prospects looked healthy and not too leggy. Well, okay, we can squeeze them in without crowding—but no more—I looked right into her eyes. She avoided my gaze. Digging in new buckets this late is a bitch. She held them out and I took them. Our famous hardpan is a challenge if you don’t get the buckets in early. I huffed and puffed and then dropped them into place in their new buckets. It’s been warm this week.

Yesterday, three more showed up in half gallon pots. Nobody claimed them; they just appeared out of nowhere, in amongst the established tomatoes. They seemed harmless enough and, clearly, well tended. Sigh. So, in they went. This weekend we’ll be doing the cages. I can only hope that that sends the message that we are done.

Today another neighbor—this time with two tomatillos! “They’re not tomatoes, really!” (I jammed both the little buggers in one bucket.) We’re up to thirty-three. And, just for good measure, she brought along another lemon cucumber. This is how the garden grows. I’m just glad they’re not kittens.