I have been scared to plant tomatoes in New England. Perhaps it is because of the warning note my local plant and garden shop attaches to every purchase of tender annuals: DO NOT PLANT UNTIL DANGER OF FROST HAS PAST; there's hardly a date mentioned or a suggestion of a safe time. I keep wondering when they'll start giving me the 'all clear' notes. July? I suppose they want to hedge their bets to avoid returns of these costly tender annuals.
In Chicago, things were more simple. At least in some ways. We were in the city. Our yards were warmed by asphalt and CO2. And late Spring frosts were hardly a whisper amongst those I knew also gardening in the city.
I've been watching the weather carefully. What does the (mostly inaccurate) ten day forecast look like? Monday night temps will hit 39? OK, no planting the tomatoes until after Monday. That gave me an excuse to take 4 days off from the garden. I probably should have checked in on Sunday to water the seeds I had planted, but I didn't have much energy after my 4 hour drive back to Boston from NYC, where I celebrated a friend's birthday by taking him on a three mile walk to dinner despite his protests.
Tuesday came with preparation and dread. I had my plants ready, but I wasn't completely prepared to put them in the ground, get dirt under my nails (I've never been one for gloves), and cake mud on my jeans and shoes. But I could no longer put off the necessary, and after a two-hour delay at the cafe where I complained about the turn my life has taken, pulled into the parking lot at the farm and was ready to go.
When I arrived none of the usual suspects were there. I felt a sense of relief as I carried the plants in shifts from the car to my plot at the bottom of the hill. Four trips of back-and-forth and I was ready to go. All of the plants were intact save for a beheaded chili plant found itself guillotined when I stacked two trays to make the carting a little faster. I still planted the poor guy, hoping that maybe its got a bit more fight left in him, though I planted a healthy plant next to him, just in case he failed to thrive.
Someone had left a stack of cardboard next to my plot that I assumed to be dissembled carriers for plants. I moved the stack to a wall with the hope that no one would think I would do such an unthinkable thing as leave waste at the garden (I guess I could have taken it home for recycling...but I was running on all cylinders at the time). And I didn't want a stern disapprobation from the garden committee or the self-appointed busy-bodies who noted my every move with keen interest. I placed it next to the abandoned chicken wire and the broken shovel handle, which I subsequently borrowed to stand in as a tomato stake.
A few neighbors along my row had finally started working on their plots and I was, frankly, jealous. Especially of the woman with the perennial bed next to me who had a beautiful collection of raspberry bushes and strawberry plants. Neighbors had planted their tomatoes, and I silently commended myself for having more robust and healthy looking plants, though I cursed myself for using paper mulch instead of the shiny, black and earth-warming plastic mulch. A favorite hobby of some of the old timer gardeners is to talk about the neighbors and their dramas. Pumpkin John, who I now seem to chat with every time I'm in the garden, likes to fill me in: "The woman with the perennials, she's like you, working all by herself. Her husband has a heart condition. He wants her to have fun in the garden. But she said she found some footprints in her garden, like someone was walking around. Looks like she got permission to plant all the way to the stone wall. But her neighbor isn't allowed to plant something. I can't quite remember what it is."
While he talked, I set to work digging holes, throwing in a handful of composted manure, soaking the plants, placing the plants in the hole, dressing with more composted manure, and finishing with more soil. First tomatoes. Then the rest of the plants, mostly herbs with a few squashes thrown in for fun. I had never successfully grown squashes thanks to a moth borer that destroyed my plants just above the roots. I fully expect the three plants I put in to fail, though there is a possibility my plants will be passed over by the angel of death. Fingers crossed. Eventually Pumkin John wandered back to his garden to get his day's work done. "You just tire me out with your motivation", he remarked.
As I finished up the planting by scattering marigolds all around the garden, for no other purpose than decoration and superstition, I noticed something I had never seen in Chicago. A beetle with bright red markings! Figuring it had crime on its mind, I picked it up and threw it into a neighboring patch of weeds. Perhaps the beetle, which I identified as either a dung beetle or a darkling beetle, would find something more suitable to its taste there.
I headed back to my car, my shoes sloshing with water and mud. The trenches in my garden don't drain so well and though I rinsed my shoes, they were still very mucky and wet. I threw my shoes into the trunk. As I was about to put my hand on the doorhandle, get in and drive back home (I've got to get a bike...) one of the garden's old timers, Paul, stopped me.
"How does your garden grow?" he asked.
"Uh, I dunno. I hope well, fingers crossed!" I'm not too quick with snappy comebacks.
"I was expecting you to say, 'With silver bells and cockle shells and handsome boys all in a row!'
Oh yeah, nursery rhymes! "Is that what you've planted?" I asked.
"Oh no, I have a jungle garden. Thirty nicotiana plants, four giant sunflowers in the middle of the patch so I don't block sun for my neighbors. And I have a cork tree."
"A cork tree?" I looked at him quizzically. Cork grows in Spain, Portugal and in other countries in the Mediterranean. Not in the cool, wet suburbs of Boston.
"Basically its a pole with strings hanging off. And champagne corks hanging off the strings!"
"Yeah, I've been gardening here since the 70s. And the problem with having a big plot is that you have all this space, so you grow all these vegetables. And all us single guys just end up giving our vegetables away. So I've turned mine into a jungle. I have a great view from my garden and we bbq. I just come down during the summer almost every night and we sit out until about 9:30. Where's your plot?"
I pointed to the bottom of the hill.
"Oh, you're lucky!" I didn't detect his sarcasm at first. "Sometimes, when it rains, all the rain will pool at the bottom where you've got your plot, and you'll be eight to nine inches underwater."
"I've kinda dug my beds so that if it happens, I'll be okay. I dug down past the topsoil and raised the beds. Plus I'm right next to the water spigot."
"Still," he said, "you'll want to get another plot next year. Sometimes in the spring it rains so hard people at the bottom of the hill can't start gardening for a month after we've started."
"Hm. I dunno. I kinda like it." I had already sunk a lot of money into my bed, augmenting the soil with compost and composted manure and bone meal. I hated the idea of doing it all over again next year in a new garden. It was expensive and slow and exhausting.
"Well, you're lucky, you know. In the past we had some real despots running the farm, but they didn't get their contract renewed, and the current managers are great."
I was curious. Despots?
"What did they do?" I asked.
"Oh, they were a married couple. Patty and Don. Patty would get in everyone's business. She told everyone what they should do and not do. If you were at the garden and it was 8:30 at night, you'd get a letter. They were real enforcers. Another old timer and I were enjoying the garden one night and we realized it was 8:30. I started running home. But my buddy got in his car. And as he's pulling out, he sees Patty and Don chasing him down. Patty reaches into his car and grabs his arm and tells him he's violating the code. So he goes down to the police station and reports her for assault. But all he wanted was the police to warn her. He didn't press charges."
"Wow. Sounds bad."
"Yeah. Another time, she came round to my garden and told me that I couldn't have a bbq, that it was against code. Well I just kept my mouth shut then went down to the fire station and asked them if it was against any code, having a bbq in a garden. They just laughed. Told me to put a board underneath. So I put a board underneath. A few days later I notice the board is gone. She's taken it! And I get a letter in the mail, signed by Don, who was a real nice guy, saying I'd violated the code. When I asked him about it later, he just shrugged and said that he just signs the letters. She writes 'em."
"So their contract wasn't renewed?"
"Nope. The board didn't rehire them. But Patty said something about getting an inheritance from her grandmother or something, like she was the one who was quitting. Anyway, you're lucky."
"I guess I am." So far the only reprimand I've received was from one of the garden committee members to slow down when I entered the parking lot so I don't inadventently run over any children or cats.
Tomorrow I'll go back to the garden and give it a good watering before the heat of the end of the week. It promises to be a real boiler.