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Monday, March 04, 2002

The tomato lecture


I didn't care for gardening when I was growing up. I much preferred to spend my Saturdays lounging around the house with a book, or exploring the small wilderness across the creek that bounded the suburban lot we called home. From a hill across a meadow in the wild area, I could look back over the creek valley and see the backs of the row of new houses, set down in pastureland during the explosive growth after World War II, and in the large back yards the men could be seen, each in his own realm, restoring order to the landscape the bulldozers had crushed and tumbled.

Some planted a few pines, all planted grass.

My father, almost alone among them, planted fruit trees, grapes, figs, and row upon row of vegetables. He owned a walking tractor, the remote ancestor of today's tillers, and I could hear it singing to him, dinka-dinka-dink, as he plowed.

He made the earth yield tenfold, twentyfold, an hundredfold, all of which he brought to my despairing mother in brimming bushel baskets. She had neither the time nor the inclination for canning, drying, and freezing, and would surreptitiously slip the produce, as much as she could reasonably expect would go unnoticed, into the trash.

Frankly, I shared her point of view.

I didn't like squash or spinach fresh, let alone reconstituted in the dead of winter, so why bother?

He failed to make a convert of her, and had worse luck with me. I was enlisted to barrow ripe manure from place to place, to hold trees upright while he mixed compost, water and earth gently round the roots, to unroll bare-root tomato plants from their damp newspaper wrapping in my own shade, safe from the sun, while he dug, and poured, and tamped, talking and explaining the whole while.

But my mind stayed resolutely elsewhere; perhaps with Herodotus, or Jane Austen. My father sensed the futility of his efforts, and with a sigh released me to my own world, taking up the tomatoes from his shade with one hand and pouring water into the holes with the other, alone.

Years later, needing to earn a living on my arrival in Oregon at the height of an unemployment crisis, I signed on to a tree planting crew.

The foreman showed the new hands the basics in setting out a two-year-old Douglas fir seedling:

"Y'open the hole with the hoedad at the bottom by pulling up on the handle, see? Then the top by pulling down. Now yuh've got a hole twelve inches deep and four across all the way down. Right? Now take yer tree and dangle the roots down; give 'em a shake so they'll hang loose and won't get caught upside down, see? 'Cuz roots upside down don't work -- they'll die on yuh; if all the roots are upside down the whole tree'll die. They only work one way. Keep it out of the sun, too, and don't hold it out in the wind too long. All that sun and air'll kill yer tree. Now yuh pack the dirt around the tree with yer hoedad blade, once, twice, like this, so there's no air pocket in the ground -- that air will kill a tree in the ground just like it will in yer hand. Now press down with yer foot, but not too close to the stem and not too hard. There's hair roots, yuh can't see 'em, on every root yuh can see, and if yuh get rough you'll strip those off at the base, and they'll die, and there goes yer tree. O.K.? now on to the next spot."

About halfway through the lecture I realized I already knew all this; it was the tomato lecture!

Shade, air, and hair roots. This foreman might not know Homer (and certainly not Jane Austen), but his rough sophistication in physical geography and botany struck me as something admirable, and at that moment with a flash of insight I understood my father's enthusiasm for gardening not as a weird masochistic hobby but as a vital branch of knowledge.

I suddenly took an interest in tree planting, which in a way was unfortunate for me, as I lasted ten years at an occupation which no one has any business doing for more than three.

Hand planting of tree seedlings is carried on in the winter hereabouts, beginning when the rains have penetrated about ten inches into the soil. Our crews worked in the Coast Range until March, then fanned out across the Cascades and the Rockies, finishing up usually about the end of May in Montana or Colorado.

Summer was the off season.

Having nothing else to do that first summer, I took up gardening. After tilling a suitable patch of ground, I went out with a round-pointed shovel, a bucket of compost, a bucket of water, and a flat of tomatoes in two-inch pots (I have never seen those bare-root "field-growed" plants since my childhood).

With the shovel, I dug a hole about the depth of the blade, threw in some nice wormy compost, turned up a tomato plant and gently lifted off the pot, set the root ball quickly into the earth (working in my own shade), slopped in some water, and backfilled soil up to just above the root collar, tamped gently with the heel of my palm, and measured to the next spot by simply laying down the shovel and noting the place where the end of its handle reached to.

I didn't think about it at the time, but later realized, while admiring the nicely laid out grid of fresh greenery, that I had absorbed, albeit unknown to me at the time, every move of my father's method. The conversion was complete.

When my parents eventually made their way west to visit, they caught us at the end of a pretty good harvest. My father looked over the rows of corn, the squash patch, the bean trellises, and the fall bed with its broccoli, lettuce, chard, and kale seedlings, and shook his head.

"Where'd you learn how to do all this? " But he knew the answer as well as I did, and I could tell the old man was deeply pleased.

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