It started as an educational experience for the kids. We would grow a few little tomato plants in our newly acquired little garden next to our newly acquired little house. The children would marvel as the baby plants grew skyward. They would watch in fascination as tomatoes (with any luck) appeared and ripened in full view of their eager little faces.
It all sounded wonderfully bucolic. And easy. Too easy.
It began to go wrong at the local garden store. To complicate matters there were actually different types of tiny tomato plants: Better Boy, Big Boy, Bigger Boy, Biggest Boy. What the heck -- we bought them all. Six-packs of them in cute green plastic containers. We carefully escorted all 24 plants to our garden and welcomed them into the family. They were about six inches high then, as I recall, and it was May.
We planted the tomatoes in neat rows and when we were done we gazed at them fondly. The children were busy kicking a soccer ball into the azaleas at the other end of the yard.
We diligently watered and fertilized. My husband, upon returning home from work, would rush to the the garden before he even greeted me or the kids. There he communed with the tomato plants, all of whom seemed snug and happy in their new home. That is, except for three of the plants who didn't make it. Sadly (and discreetly, so that the children wouldn't know), we removed their shriveled little stems from the dirt. But, realizing that we still had 21 healthy plants, we didn't despair.
Following advice from my new, 600-page garden book, I returned to the garden store to buy the requisite stakes for our fledgling plants. Apparently, they were to grow so big that their youthful stalks would need help standing. And when the plants were about a foot high I ever so carefully and ever so neatly tied them to the poles. I felt proud as I gazed out at our patch of earth.
The plants kept growing. I tied them up again. And again. A vague uneasiness was beginning to set in. It was late June and our week-long summer vacation was at hand. We were panicked; how could we abandon our garden, albeit briefly? A neighborhood adolescent was hired to water the plants in our absence but still we worried. It was a long, hot week with nary a drop of rain.
We returned late Sunday night and nearing midnight we found ourselves in the yard examining the tomato plants by flashlight. While we were gone they had doubled yet again in size, some five feet and more tall with a frightening lushness that in the moonlight seemed to threaten our little yard. By morning light, we examined the garden more carefully and found that some of the plants had broken free of their fragile supports and had fallen to the ground in a tangle.
I rushed to the garden store and bought sturdy, thick wooden posts and retied the plants. A semblance of order was brought to the riot of branches and tendrils. And for a moment, we breathed easier.
Then, a week or two later, in mid-July, it happened.
Our first tomato!
We were wildly excited and rushed to tell the children, but they were absorbed in trying to hit a baseball into the rose bushes. Still, it was a memorable moment.
But soon there were more tomatoes. And more. And still more. Some were fist size, others were just getting started, all of them were bright green. And then it hit us.
They would all eventually ripen.
What were we going to do with them? A few sliced tomatoes for a salad or sandwich was one thing; scores of them was something else again.
While visiting a general store one weekend in Lancaster, Pa., my husband noticed jars of tomato preserves and relishes and hurriedly brought them to my attention. The look I gave him made him change the conversation.
A friend of Italian heritage kept mentioning the potfuls of tomato sauce I could be making, along with the fact that the six tomato plants she planted annually always kept her bountifully supplied.
"Six?" I asked weakly.
She even stocked her freezer with enough sauce for the coming winter.
Then she asked how many plants I had. I told her.
"Oh," she said, "that will make a lot of sauce."
And we both changed the conversation.
My 4-year-old son offered to open a tomato stand on the street corner. Pleased by his entrepreneurial spirit, we asked him how much he would charge his customers. Five dollars per tomato was his gravely considered opinion.
We thought that was eminently fair.
Come August, however, we decided to alter our pricing policy. We would offer the tomatoes at 25 cents each.
So, should you pass by our mini-farmer's market we would be delighted to give you a quarter for every ripe tomato you take away with you.
Lisa Braun-Kenigsburg is a Washington-based freelance writer.