Tomatoes in the driver's seat

Putting mom's old station wagon 'out to pasture' takes on a whole new meaning

I'm thinking about dropping the insurance on my "mom car." The air conditioner doesn't work, and the brakes are shot. The power locks are powerless, the chassis leaks oil on our driveway, and no one wants to buy it – we tried twice with classified ads.

Since the car is paid for and we can't sell it, I figure we may as well put it to good use. Convert it, maybe, into a planter.

I envision a future for this 1982 Mercedes as the ultimate container garden. It can double – even triple – as an ant farm, raised bed for flowers, and cold frame for gourmet baby lettuces. The climate in our corner of north Texas enables us to garden nearly year-round, so a car planter would be the perfect solution to myriad gardening dilemmas.

I'm envisioning sunflowers reaching for the sky out of my sunroof and strawberries cascading from cracked-open windows. Schoolchildren could stop by our house and examine plant roots and ant-farm tunnels through the windows. Portabello mushrooms would flourish in the damp, rich soil under the chrome bumpers.

When summer arrives, we can put our container garden in neutral, push it back toward the pond, and let it wick up water so the soil won't dry out while we're on vacation.

All of which reminds me of a guy in San Antonio who harvests tomatoes all winter from a most unusual container garden. I heard about "Tomato Man" from a county extension agent who received a phone call from him one cold day in January.

"Hey, Stuart," the man said. "I want you to come down and see my tomatoes. They're nice and ripe."

"No way do you have tomatoes in January. You must have a greenhouse," Stu said.

"Nope," Tomato Man said. "You've just got to come and see."

"It's too cold, and there's not enough sun," Stu scoffed. He suspected that someone was playing a joke on him.

But it's Stu's job to check up on the home gardeners in his county, so he grudgingly went to see the guy, who was indeed harvesting homegrown tomatoes in January. Tomato Man proudly displayed his secret of success: tomatoes growing in half-gallon containers atop old lawn mowers.

This retired gardener simply followed the sun, wheeling his portable vegetable plot from backyard to side yard to front yard so the plants got a full eight hours a day. When the weatherman forecast low temperatures at night, he wheeled the tomatoes into his garage.

So, I figure my car garden is a win-win idea and a wise investment in the future, a commendable act of recycling's three R's: reduce, reuse, recycle.

I'll change out the plants with the seasons, use the antenna for vining plants such as morning glories, and establish some winter-hardy native grasses that could replace the doors in winter, affording better air flow for the entire planter.

Oriented in a southwesterly direction, under deciduous trees, the entire back window of my moveable garden will become a cold frame, protecting tender lettuces and spinach seedlings from the cold while still allowing winter sunshine to nurture the plants.

On warm winter days I'll prop open the back door to allow airflow and prevent mildew. Of course, when temperatures drop to freezing I'll close the doors, lock the sunroof, and surround my station wagon with a 2-foot-thick mulch of newspapers, pine straw, and compost, tucked in with old quilts.

Probably in summer, I'll buy an extra windshield sunscreen to reflect the hot summer rays.

"You're not really going to do that, are you, Mom?" my son pleads after I tell him my plan. He looks up at me, then sideways at his sister. They're beginning to wonder if I'm getting as goofy as their Aunt Melba who rubs sweet-potato cream on her legs every night.

"Nah," I say, crossing my fingers behind my back. "Of course I'm not going to do that. We'll probably just sell the car for parts and put the money toward your college education."

"Whew. OK."

Dreaming of daffodil bulbs and morning glories, I start supper and make plans for growing my own sweet potatoes in my designer driveway garden.

And then I realize, in a flash of inspiration, that I can start some companion planting with the useless old lawn mower that's rusting away in the shed.

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