Tending Tomatoes in Texas

The defining moment came during a recent October thunderstorm. We were asleep when the room suddenly lit with jagged light and rain hammered the window above our bed.

My wife woke from a deep sleep, turned to me, and said, ``Oh no, I meant to bring the tomatoes in.''

I looked at the clock. A fluorescent 3:17 shimmered in the darkness. ``They'll be fine,'' I said, closing my eyes. But soon they reopened. I had visions of bright-red cherry tomatoes floating past the wildflowers, around the garage, and toward the street.

Perhaps we have put too much of ourselves into growing tomatoes.

Later, we checked on our tomatoes. The plants were just fine. Sodden and leaning a bit, but fine. Quarter-size fruit, bright red and glistening with rainwater, peeked through the green.

We grow tomatoes because it's all we can grow. In our part of south Texas, the sun shines nearly 300 days of the year. It seems like such a waste not to grow something. So we keep trying. We continue to be amazed that such simple acts as placing seeds in earth, adding a little water, and subtracting the weeds and bugs result too often in something that turns brown and dies - except the tomatoes. It is a humbling experience.

Although both my parents were raised on farms, they left at the first opportunity. Neither passed down any rudimentary agricultural skills, though my father still occasionally describes the joys of chopping cotton in north Texas during the Depression.

Ginny, my bride, grew up on a farm. So I defer to her wisdom on such things as planting times, soil quality, and early frosts.

We had no mutual interest in growing things until we bought our first and only house 14 years ago. At first, we went whole hog. We rented a rototiller, tearing up whole chunks of our small backyard. We tilled rows and planted peas, carrots, radishes, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Along the garage wall, we planted four little corn plants. We watered. We weeded. Hoping to be environmentally correct, we didn't use insecticides.

Our net gain was two peppers, four beans, and little else but very happy insects. The big surprise was the tomatoes. They flourished in an old barrel once used for daisies.

From our porch, you can almost see the plants shoot toward the sun. Tiny yellow blossoms turn into green balls that slowly turn red.

One season, we did have a bumper crop of radishes. It is quite possible to have too many radishes. The tomatoes, however, are wonderful - rich, sweet, and all ours.

There were, of course, other benefits. Our yard became a source of adventure and wonder. Digging a new flower bed, we dug up an old tin can, rusty and indecipherable. Inside were company credit cards dating from the 1950s. Our sons, digging yet another growing bed, found a 50-year-old soft-drink bottle. They felt like Indiana Jones.

We also discovered that people live next door. One neighbor, Mr. Rodriguez, watches across the fence at our labors and cheers us on. He donates his wisdom and we share our tomato crop. He applauds our successes and ignores our failures. We gather at the fence while he recounts the history of our neighborhood.

Behind us, Mrs. Schnettler keeps us supplied with oregano, parsley, basil, and other bounty from her herb garden. Everything in it springs from plants her mother started more than a half-century ago. We give her tomatoes.

What we are growing is a heritage, a legacy for our sons. They have learned that sweat will not hurt them; that the colors of flowers are infinitely more vivid outside than on TV; that hard work, seed, and the right amount of sun and water will enable you to eat; and that those who grow things are connected to all other living things.

They have not, however, learned to like tomatoes.

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