December 15, 2014

Crazy Tomato
by Anna Sykora (essay, G)
Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

Out of season, out of doors, and almost -- almost -- out of luck...

~~~

Last September the plant seemed a puny weed, with two leaves pointing East and West. Reaching to rip it from a flowerbed, I recognized the baby tomato.

What was it doing in our yard? Brought here by a bird? I hadn't planted tomatoes in this corner for two years. Maybe some bit of leftover root regenerated a stem and leaves?

Everything else I'd grown had given up and shriveled away for the year. A North German winter lasts eight months. Why had this little plant decided to lift its head and take its chance?

You must be plucky or insane, I told it. I like you. What are we going to do?

Then drops of cold rain started beating down.

Scooping up my baby with a teaspoon, I patted it into a pot of its own. Now to find a safe place inside. Our three ancient cats are fond of fresh "salad" and leave no plant unchewed.

Crazy Tomato landed in my husband's home office, on a shelf over the radiator, in front of the window that gets the best winter light. Which isn't much. By December the sun rises at eight in Hanover and sets by 4PM. And there was only one inch between the radiator and the wooden shelf. Maybe poor Crazy would steam there, like a head of cauliflower? What a gruesome end.

"What is that ratty thing in my office?" my husband grumbled when he got home.

"A baby tomato that thinks it's summer. It needs to stay inside with us."

"I said you could put some geraniums here, not refugees from your farm." In recent years I've learned to grow fruits and vegetables, in every cranny of our small rowhouse: terraces, yard, roof and windowsills.

"Crazy Tomato doesn't need much space." I wrapped my hands around the small pot. "And you have the best window here. And you'll be happy if we get more tomatoes."

In short, my husband -- who hates gardening (his parents made him work in a greenhouse), but loves to help eat up my produce -- let me have my way. Now the tomato seemed to drowse for several months, not exactly flourishing, but faithfully putting out another few delicate leaves from time to time. It looked pale and anemic, I thought, but by January stood about eight inches high, balancing six lacy branches on a spindly stem.

I didn't fertilize it, worried it would grow too fast and die on me. I did repot it a couple of times, kept it moist and whispered encouragement. The cats, preoccupied with snacking on my geraniums and barfing them up all over the rugs, kept their distance from Crazy Tomato.

Stubbornly it survived all winter, and weeks before the weather warmed, already it seemed to sense the longer days. By mid-March it started growing with astonishing, violent energy. I fetched the fertilizer.

"Is that the same little plant?" My husband gawked at the bush in a pot on his floor. Crazy's highest leaf now reached my waist.

"Yes, and it wants to live," I said proudly. "It wants to make tomatoes."

Snow still lay thick as a featherbed, and I held back from pinching any leaves off Crazy. How could it possibly form flowers? The stem looked crooked, thin and weak, so I supported it on three bamboo poles laced together with twine.

This arrangement intrigued our cats, however, who attacked the string and poles; so already in April -- despite high winds, and bouts of pouring rain -- I moved the whole bushy bundle outside, into the upstairs terrace. (Walled on four sides, it pretends to be protected from the wind.) Using extra clothesline, I tacked Crazy's poles to the hooks for our laundry lines.

Now drenched by the rain and whipped by the wind, but safely tethered to these hooks, Crazy tossed and turned, fighting for its life day after day. I felt guilty; my gardening books insist tomatoes hate the wind.

I'm doing the best I can for you, I told it. The yard or the roof would rip you to pieces.

Crazy kept growing anyhow, and I repotted it into a twelve-inch pot. As the weather grew milder, it grew up boldly, towering over my five feet six inches. Bushy and lush green, my baby now was looking down on me ...

I started pinching off downward pointing leaves, and leaves that grow at the joints of branches, and Crazy soon put out dozens of flourishing, butter-yellow flowerets. Gently I jiggled them, to mix the pollen (as I learned from internet gardeners), as there were no signs of bees or flies in our chilly, rainy spring.

By early June, Crazy was busy producing six-packs and four-packs of glossy, green tomatoes; and doubles and lone ones, the size of golf balls. I couldn't believe our luck. By the end of the month we were harvesting ripe tomatoes the size of jumbo plums, and eating them in salads, sauces and stews. In July and August we picked many scores more, and Crazy kept growing luxuriously. I boiled white cabbage in tomato sauce, and tried new recipes for pasta and risotto. I turned up my nose at store-bought tomatoes, and my husband grinned and ate.

Our foundling, almost 8 feet high, was wider than Karl-Walter, and I felt a sense of awe and joy, watering it and tending it, and showing it off to visitors. How life can thrive, just offered half a chance ...

Maybe Crazy could have grown even bigger had I moved it sooner to a bigger pot. Too late to transplant it once again, the whole, thriving jungle now knitted together with poles of all lengths and lacings of twine.

In September it started turning yellow, but I trimmed out the dying sections, and dosed the roots with more fertilizer, and to my surprise Crazy turned green, as if summer would never end. In October -- long after our eight smaller bushes in the yard had quit -- Crazy still was bearing healthy fruit. Because of its self-inspired head start it had out-produced them all.

Finally, towards Halloween, whole branches began to shrivel and blacken. I kept trimming the dead stuff off, till only a bare broomstick remained, tufted on top with fresh, green leaves and even a pair of yellow flowers. Hopeful to the end.

Our last, hard green tomatoes I kept on a platter in the basement, separated from each other. Most of them rot, but the few that ripen this late have a special, sharp flavor.

The day I cut down Crazy Tomato, and buried it in our compost pile, I felt I'd lost a friend. The thick stalk, still green inside, seemed to chide my tidying haste.

Maybe I should have let this generous plant shrivel down all by itself, in its time. Just because something no longer looks productive doesn't mean it isn't full of (secret) life. Bending over the dripping stump I inhaled the pungent, sweet-sour fragrance ...

Well, this strong and surprising plant would live on in my flesh. For five months it helped to feed me and my husband, and from one of its random seeds I'd already potted next summer's Crazy Tomato.

As I write this, it's nodding at me from the sill, in its pot in a mini-greenhouse there.

Long live Crazy Tomato ...

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Article © Anna Sykora. All rights reserved.


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