The Tomato Bug

THESE days autumn strides in like a drill sergeant barking orders: ``Up and at 'em! Back to work! Back to school! Move it! Move it!'' Leisurely summer vacations or weekends at the lake or in the hammock quickly become pleasant-if-faded memories. Escapist summer has been tracked down and put to work.

But this model is only a recent convention. A deeper urge reaches into our agrarian past. It recognizes summer as the time to work, to wring the most out of the light and heat and long hours of sun. Thus the need for children at home - no time for school - to put all available hands to the many tasks. Back then, autumn was the time to wind down, a cool relief in which to reap the benefits of summer labor and, at end, to give thanks.

For many today, gardens are a way to keep in touch with these earlier rhythms. Even the slightest effort to work the soil and tend a crop can bring inexplicable satisfactions.

A colleague had assumed his back yard - a small patch of grass shaded much of the day by towering pines and oaks - was unsuited for agriculture. His thumb, while it could make a snappy slap on a keyboard space bar, had no verdant hue. But someone brought by a tomato seedling in a large planter and a bag of fertilizer. It would fit in the corner of the deck, the sunniest spot on the property.

Somehow, the reluctant gardener's indifference turned to attentiveness when the slightest sign of life and growth appeared. Tending the vines became a daily ritual: Time to water? Soil too wet? Too dry? Would rotating the pot help? Check for bugs. Pinch off unpromising shoots. Oh, no, vacation: Who will look in?

When the fruits came in, the ruby spheres made their supermarket imposters forever unthinkable. Salads were transformed; whole fruits were eagerly consumed with a wad of napkins at the ready to mop soggy chins.

Now the first frost is the enemy. Already nights are cool. Our friend scours cookbooks and pumps friends for green tomato recipes. Maybe the vines could live on as winter house plants in the guest bedroom. When do the relatives next arrive?

He was transfixed when a TV talk show brought on a champion grower and his latest accomplishment: a 4-pound, 4.5-ounce tomato. The expert's secrets: Frank Sinatra music, a heating pad, and some sweet talk each morning and evening.

The nascent gardener took note. Only 180 days till next spring.

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