Dreams of Summer Tomatoes

Tomatoes and squash never fail to reach maturity. You can spray them with acid, beat them with sticks, and burn them; they love it.

–    S. J. Perelman, American humorist (1904-1979)

Sometimes I find myself planting tomatoes with another person. Maybe we’re in their garden and I’ve brought them some of my seedlings, or they’re helping me put mine in. Invariably, at some point, someone will snap the main stem nearly in two. It’s easy to do and nobody’s fault saves for the mischievous tomato gods. The young plants are still tender, even if they’ve been put outside in their small pots to harden, and their stems are full of water. It’s a surprise they don’t all snap.

I tell my gardening companions, “Wrap some tape around it.”

“What kind of tape?”

“Any kind.”

Tomatoes don’t care. It’ll live. That’s what they do. Or, you can just bury the entire plant above the break, so only the unbroken part juts out of the ground.

It’ll live!

Perelman was joking when he said spray them with acid, of course, but this is one of those situations where it’s funny because it’s true. A few years back, my dad’s friend kept chickens, and he offered us chicken manure that had aged over the winter. I came home to a giant pile of chicken manure in the garden.

It was like Christmas in May for gardeners. And I was a lucky one because my dad rototilled the manure into the soil for us. We got to planting, anticipating the wonders the manure would do. And the manure sure did something… The young tomato plants lost most of their leaves, and the ones that remained were small and yellowed. They all grew very slowly—at least at first. It was like they’d been shocked. In a way, they were. The manure we used was too “hot,” meaning it still contained way more nitrogen than is healthy for a plant. Nitrogen is a good fertilizer, but as is so often the case, too much of a good thing is harmful.

Even so, tomato plants are hard to kill. Hornworms, the larval stage of a moth species, love to snack on tomato leaves. If you see hornworms on your tomatoes, it’s okay to freak out, but before you do, congratulate yourself for being able to spot one in the first place — these caterpillars have serious camouflage. You could always take care of the problem in a traditional way, like picking the hornworms off and killing them, or if you’re like me, you could try a Hail Mary and hope some nice braconid wasps move into the neighborhood. Braconid wasps are tiny and they don’t sting, and they love on tomato hornworms. I won’t go into graphic detail about what happens when a braconid gets in pincers on a hornworm, but let’s just say they’re problem solvers!

Worst abuses a tomato plant will face.

1. Too much water. Watering the foliage instead of the soil, just begging for a fungus (which, by the way, is one thing that is virtually guaranteed to send your tomato plant to that great garden in the sky).

2. Not composting: eh, not abuse… but what else are you going to do with your shredded paper if not pile it around your tomatoes?

3. Not pruning away the bottom branches: I see you like to live on the wild side, courting fungus and encouraging fruits to grow near the ground. 

4. I’d even go so far as to call not staking a form of abuse, but that backfires so badly on the gardener, who has to crawl on the ground hunting for tomatoes, that it’s more of a self-own.

Make your life easier, not harder! Remember, tomato plants are 99% likely to be indeterminate, the type that fruits all season. You aren’t going to run out of tomatoes.

So don’t worry, be happy you planted tomatoes! They’re hard to kill and easy to care for. If there’s an incident, they’ll probably be fine. And that’s more than we can say if we humans were nearly snapped in two, isn’t it?

Kudos magazine 5.3

One thought on “Dreams of Summer Tomatoes

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