Posts Tagged ‘tomatoes’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

July 20, 2011

We’re deep into July now.  Though we continue to have days of rain, they’re interspersed with scrubbed-blue-sky days with temperatures in the 70s or, if we have more than one clear day in a row, in the 80s.  Now that we’re a month past solstice, the nights cool off a bit on the clear days and we’re noticing a hint of darkness in the sky after midnight—just enough to ease the insomnia that plagues us in the Interior around solstice.  Just enough to send a warning of things to come and send us urgently chasing after summer plans.  A friend is canoeing on the river for a week; the softball team is making spectacular plays (for them); the horse community is revving up training for the fair, our one big horse show of the year.

 

I’ve been going back and rereading last year’s blog entries, which assure me that my garden and greenhouse are exactly where it was last year—some tomato plants still in small pots, the zucchini just starting to bloom and put out shiny dark green squashes.  I’ve been riding more this summer—two lessons a week and lots of driving the old clunker truck and trailer around town.  The garden has suffered some neglect because of this and because of the teaching I’m doing at the moment, but it seems to be growing anyway.

 

I’ve been thinking of my grandmother these days, the one I called Weezie.  At a writer’s group meeting a week or so ago, I read a poem about her taking me to an art museum when I was a young child.  Linda, a poet, said to me, “She was your muse.”

 

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but as I stand in the greenhouse, transplanting tomatoes, mixing soil, adding willow stakes for them to grow against, I find that I think of her.  She was the daughter of a woman who made her living china painting in the late nineteenth century.  She and her sister Marguerite trained in art in Cincinnati and she always thought of herself as an artist more than anything else.  Marguerite married a ceramic sculptor named John Williams and moved to California.  I still have a few pieces or their work somewhere—or my mother does.

 

But Weezie—Louise–joined a group of women in 1918 in a horticultural class at the Ambler campus of Temple University in Philadelphia where they learned the landscape arts, plant propagation, and got to wear bloomers.  There’s a photo in an album at my mother’s house that shows them—women in their twenties with wire-rim glasses smiling and liberated by the opportunity to do “men’s” work.  When my grandmother had the opportunity to travel to Maryland and met my farmer grandfather, with his strong cheekbones and blue eyes, she thought she had found the perfect life.  She could use her scientific knowledge of agriculture on the farm and she could re-design the nearby plantation gardens in a more modernist fashion.

 

I like to think of her as she was then, long before I knew her: artistic, determined, full of plans to make the world a better place, and liberated from Victorian rules of behavior.  She didn’t count on my great-grandfather, however, who sent her to the kitchen and made her wear dresses.  And she didn’t count on the Depression.

 

When I knew her, she was landscaping the lot beside my grandparents’ house in Salisbury, Maryland, keeping it so that it looked wild, but planting things all through it that she could point out on our walks there.  She would walk me around the property, telling me the names of plants, weeding and pruning and cutting flowers for our lunch table.  She told me many things I didn’t understand at the time, but they lodged in my memory waiting for the right moment to dislodge into consciousness when I would finally grasp their importance.

 

I hope to write about her more, to dig into her history more and find out how she became the woman she was and why she chose the life she did.  But now the tomatoes need tending and, if I listen closely, she’ll guide me to tend them well.

 

 

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

August 3, 2010

Camp Joy

I haven’t written enough here about my ever-evolving love and admiration for the tomato plant. As I learn more each year about them, their soil requirements, the care and tending of the plant, I’m struck by how resilient and beautiful they are. Each plant has its own leaf pattern, so that I am beginning to be able to tell the varieties apart by looking at the zigzag of dents on the leaves. Last year’s favorite, Chianti Rose, is a potato-leaf plant, with smooth-edged leaves like large green arrowheads. The Roma, on the other hand has a more complex, almost frilly pattern of dents that all together give the plant a lacy look in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes and I go way back. In fact, when I was quite young, I didn’t like them much; the acid juice was too tart for my taste. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then, when I was turning twelve, we moved to house on a farm whose farmer planted acres of beefsteak tomatoes. By this time of year, the plants were sprawling viny bushes of dark green leaves with tomatoes ripening under them. The tomatoes he grew were larger than my hand, firm and dark red, and they sliced into earthy, sweet, sour, slightly salty rounds that we ate with salt. I have a memory of sitting under the leaves on the tan-orange earth, cool in the heat of summer—but that may be a false memory. I would have been too big to do something like that, though I might have imagined what it would be like to hide there.

We picked a bushel to can each summer. The canning took days, at least in my memory. My mother and I would blanch the tomatoes, dipping them in boiling water briefly and pulling them out just as the skin began to split and curl back. We put them in a colander in the sink and, one by one, peeled the now loose skin from the soft tomato flesh. By the end of the session our hands would be burning from the acid juice, and I would swear I never wanted to see another tomato. I have not canned one since, in any case.

Now, with the greenhouse and a sunny spot on the deck, I’m growing tomatoes on my own terms. A few years ago, I would buy a few plants at a local greenhouse to plant in pots on the deck. When we built the greenhouse, though, I began to order tomato seeds in winter, plant around spring break and nurture the little plants till they could be planted in five-gallon buckets in the greenhouse in summer. I’ve learned a lot—temperature matters, for example, and lots of water. In the master gardener class last year, I learned that tomatoes cannot live on horse manure alone. And I’ve learned to appreciate the unusual variety of tomato plants.

This year, I’ve planted Pompeii Romas, Chianti Rose, Sungold cherry tomatoes, and an heirloom variety of cherry, Camp Joy. Besides that, I bought three of my favorite from two years ago, Black Krim, which has a fruit that looks nearly bruised, blackish red, with a soft sweet taste. A friend gave me some pear tomatoes, some Cherokee Purple, and Stupice.

After a few weeks of neglect, today I paid attention to the Camp Joy tomatoes growing on the deck. When I first transplanted them there, they were still in small pots and had exhausted the nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil. The leaves were yellowing and had a reddish rust color on them. I transplanted them into five-gallon pots, two or three to a pot, planting them in composted manure, potting soil (from last year) and a bit of fish bone meal and dolomite lime. After a week or two, they still looked pitiful, but there was green growth at the tops. Then the rain hit for a couple weeks, then the past few days of hot sun. By this weekend the entire planting was rich green and small green tomatoes clung to each one.

I’m thinking about all this, because, today, I took an hour or so to prune suckers from each of the tomatoes on the deck. I tied the tops to the stakes or cages, admiring how the leaves were green, even the lower ones that had been so pale only weeks before. It’s hard to trim the suckers, side shoots that look so promising and green, but suck nutrients away from the growing tomatoes themselves. Some of the suckers I cut looked like tiny tomato plants—beautiful frilly leaves, the promise of flowers—but I was ruthless. The sun warmed my arms and back as I worked. Small birds (and yellowjackets) swooped through the air. I could smell the lemon-earth smell of tomato where I had cut the tiny branches of the suckers. When I was done, the plants looked airy and the sun shone through the leaves, a bright green light.

Tomorrow, the greenhouse till, little by little, all the plants are tended and happy and can use what’s left of summer to grow enough tomatoes to tempt me to can again.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

July 18, 2010

What the Thunder Said

Summer is slipping by here in the Interior. Spring came early so that we itched to have our gardens planted before it was mid-May, even knowing that the last frost could still hit by the first of June. But it didn’t and we got our usual bright June weather in May, our hot July temperatures in June, and now, mid-July, August’s rain. Even our short summer seems to be speeding by so fast we don’t know how to keep up. There are blueberries for the picking on some hills; they’re green on others. Some gardens have zucchini, some only flowers. We’ve had days of rain between glorious dry heat—haying weather, if it lasts long enough.

Last weekend, we were out at Quists’ again, picking up three pickup loads of first cutting hay from the field. This hay was dry and bright and we only got enough to stack two layers in the hay barn so that each layer had one side exposed to air and could finish drying thoroughly. It rained fitfully after we finished loading the hay, but we grilled sausages and ate a salad from the garden sitting out on the deck while Mattie and Sam munched their new hay below us in the corral. At night, we could smell the sweet grass smell of the hay drying in the barn.

This weekend we were supposed to get more hay from the Mayos’ field, near the farm where Trish and I ride on Thursdays. By Thursday, however, the clouds had thickened, and by the start of the lesson we were spattered with warm rain that lasted the whole hour. I have been planning to ride in a small show next weekend with the Horsemasters and hoped to ride Sam this afternoon to start ramping up for the weekend. But, as I was raking manure from the corral, the clouds blew in and the rain rattled through the trees. Ira and Mike headed for the house, but I stayed behind, gathering up the tools and putting things away that might get wet.

I headed for the greenhouse. I’m still doing triage transplanting of tomatoes into larger pots, trying to get all the ones I can fit and can’t give away into kitty litter containers with holes drilled in the bottoms. The rest, I at least want to get into pots one size larger so that they thrive till I can find them homes. I never give up on plants I’ve started from seed. I had plenty to do while I waited out the rain.

I stayed in the greenhouse for a few hours, mixing manure and a purchased garden mix of peat and sand. I added fish bone meal and dolomite lime and mixed it all together with some of last year’s dirt to put in the pots. As I worked, up to my elbows in dirt, the rain stopped and the sun came out and sparkled on the tomato leaves where I had sprayed them with the hose. At one point, I stepped out to check the sky and the corral to see if I might still ride Sam on good footing. As I looked up at the ridge behind the house, I saw a bank of gray cloud sliding across the sky, dimming the light. Below the dark cloud were wisps of white cloud like a mist rising—except falling below the deeper gray. They were moving quickly, curling back on themselves, fraying apart, and skimming the top of the trees. There was a sound like falling gravel from up the hill; the leaves on the willows began to shiver; then the rain hit.

At first it was just hard enough to drive me back into the greenhouse. Then the rattle became harder and tiny bits of hail fell with the water. Then pebbles of white ice, fast and thick, the sound like a train clattering across the greenhouse roof. I leaned out the door to check some plants I had staged there, and I grabbed a small Sungold tomato to bring back inside. Sam stood in front of his shed, sideways to it, as close as he could get to shelter without being right under the racket. Mattie huddled back against the back wall of her side of the shed.

Lightning cracked the air. Thunder shook the ground. I stood in the doorway worried about my lettuce, peas, beans, shouting, “No fair! No fair!”

It went on for an hour or so, loud then soft then loud again. I planted all the heirloom tomatoes my friend Cindy gave me and a few of the Chianti Rose slicers—all in their square buckets for the rest of summer now. Then I went back to triage transplanting more Romas and Chiantis.

Then the sun broke through. The corral was deep in water and mud. The tall spruces on the hill dripped, and the air felt thick with moisture. The day was over by then; the opportunity to ride, gone. The horses came out and stood facing south, downhill, heads down. The storm had exhausted us, thrilled us, left us to rest up for tomorrow.


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