Is it any wonder that tomatoes are by far the #1 most home-grown vegetable? And yes, we know they are fruit.
Most Canadians do not realize what can be learned from the experience of growing tomatoes. We believe that many of the great lessons of life are woven into the tomato growing experience, either in containers or the garden.
Here goes: 1. In the beginning there was a seed. Before you plunge your tomato seed into soil, hold it in your hand. Look at it. Roll it gently between your thumb and finger. You will find that it is oval, flat, and hairy. Nondescript. And a miracle. When your tomato seed contacts water and soil it will push a root downwards and a green cotyledon upwards. Life is full of miracles.
2. Do not miss the action. The root and cotyledon move quickly, the green part curling out in search of sun while it pushes through the soil in search of dirt-bound nutrients. The miracle begins as the young plant draws on the nutritional resources of the seed embryo. Life is like this, including human life. Pause a while.
3. Watch the seedling carefully as the cotyledon grows and the first set of leaves develop. You will add water, but not too much or the youngster will rot. You will provide sunshine or artificial light as tomatoes are sun worshippers. At this point, your tomato plant is a long way from independence. You are learning to let your plant find its own way, while providing the necessities of life. You are the parent.
4. Hardening off. About 8 weeks after you sowed the seed the young plant is ready for adventure. Fresh air. More intense light. A day trip out of doors, for only a few hours. And each day more time out there. Until, after a couple of weeks of this, it is used to the sunshine and breeze. You are learning, one day at a time, to let go. To set your tomato free. Some days this may be hard. But you can do it.
5. Planting out. It is an exciting day in May when you can finally plant your tomato out of doors in a large container (one plant needs about a bushel of soil) or in the ground. You add to your existing soil, manure, or compost, and use fresh, quality container mix in a container. And you wonder to yourself if you have moved the youngster out of doors too soon. Every parent harbours the same doubt. It looks so small and vulnerable out there. You learn to have faith. To trust your instincts.
6. Nurture. You water but don’t over water (again) and you wait (some more) as the fruits of your labour are weeks away. You learn patience and check in with your tomato every day to see how she is doing. You might even talk to your tomato (some people say this helps. We can neither confirm nor deny). Everyone who grows a tomato learns to listen as every plant sends messages. Chances are your preschool kids will pick up on tomato messages before you do, as they still believe in the magic of the seed.
7. You indulge. By late July or early August, you harvest your first tomato. You reflect on the words of Garrison Keillor, the Minnesotan storyteller who claimed that eating a fresh tomato is better than sex. Not everything Keillor had to say was appropriate, but he was right about tomatoes.
What did your tomato growing experience really teach you?
Well, remember the flat, hairy seed? Remember the journey of uncertainty, when you never knew for sure what the outcome of your tomato growing adventure would bring? This is life. This is your life, reflected in a tomato. Welcome home.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.