TOMATOES - by Diane DeSanders

This post was contributed by Diane DeSanders - check out her writer's page on our website:


With so much snow and below-freezing weather this winter, I look forward to a lower insect population this summer, fewer aphids, spiders, stink bugs, mosquitoes, ants. A partial list.

I grow tomatoes in Brooklyn. I first put seeds into those large half-barrels full of potting soil a few years ago when we first got into this house, and now I don’t even have to buy plants again as new seedling volunteers appear in spring in such numbers that I can spend hours losing track of time in thinning, feeding, staking, watering, and they just grow. Day by day they clamber and they sprawl. They make the little yellow blossoms, then the tight green bubbles that grow and fatten and redden, And then lo and behold: tomatoes! Tomatoes fat and juicy and as full of that particular garden-tomato taste you don’t get at the grocery store, as delicious as those in any French market.

No one pays me for this. No one judges me on the results. No one cares. There are no career advantages. There are no agents, no editors, no deadlines other than what Nature provides. Many might think it pathetic to be spending one’s time on such a homely, unprofitable task. It’s something I know I can do. And I have learned some things. Everything leads to everything else.

I dig in the dirt out there almost in secret. It’s mine.

The first tomatoes of summer often have something wrong – blossom-end rot most common in my case. The first time I thought some horrible nasty, evil, subversive worm was corrupting my life. But then research revealed no worm, simply a lack of calcium in an early stage. There were other possibilities (temperature changes?) that I can’t recall, but all easily solved.

Then of course I put in garlic, chives, marigolds, basil, and other things that are supposed to repel bugs.

Might as well see what happens if I put in some Asian eggplant, some broccoli, some dill, oregano, rue, thyme (Fresh lemon thyme is a wonderful thing!). And now my work is cut out for me! I had to buy cages and ladders for climbing things. Then I started getting the catalogs – dozens of catalogs for seeds, plants, gardening equipment, even giant greenhouses. I call the companies but it never stops!

I’ve spent time reading about companion planting, growing from seeds (Monsanto must be stopped!), organic gardening, the benefits of different types of vegetables, etc. 

When we first bought this house in Brooklyn four years ago, we planted a four-foot-tall apple tree from Home Depot.  Now it’s almost twenty feet, and after pruning, and after birds, squirrels, and bugs, we are getting maybe fifteen good apples out of it. But it’s young yet. We have high hopes.

I figured since I am out there all the time anyway, I might as well try some Irises, tulips, daffodils, a rose bush, a fig tree. When we started wrapping the fig tree with burlap for winter and putting down mulch, I figured I should keep a seasonal calendar of what I’m doing.

People walk past and smile at me. My neighbors have been inspired to garden also. We talk about the weather over the fence. They gave me a ripped-out blackberry bush from their place upstate. It needs an acid soil, so I compost now and am reading up on that. Work has to be done out there almost every day during the short growing season that we have here in Brooklyn. I can’t leave town!

My life has changed radically from the New York City life I once so enjoyed and so craved.

I might be out in the back yard in an apron and straw hat in the fall. My grandson, now thirteen, comes home from school on his bike, and I can’t help but imagine his brain imprinting a snapshot of Grandma/me out there. Might that happen?

Might I be inadvertently passing down a bit of something of me – something of Us -- something so long gone that survives in me – something that may or may not actually matter?

In fall the plants are mature and the tomatoes come many and fast but smaller, and I often have to pick them green to ripen on window sills when the cold hits. I remember my mother did that.

The prettiest and tastiest tomatoes that are good for slicing come of course in the heat of summer. You have to watch to be sure to pick them before they start to split their skins.

But when the tomatoes are just right, when you bite into your salad, if you’re as old as I am you might have visions of the tomatoes of your childhood, visions that include your stylish mother carrying a hoe, visions that include barbed-wire fences and horned toads, visions that include your Aunt Lee’s farm in Brady, Texas, with chickens and cows, with cats in the barn, and with a giant oak tree full of mockingbirds.