Book Excerpt: Heirlooms

I cannot describe the longing I have for garden tomatoes. For me, they define the summer and the lesson we learn about having patience to wait for the good things in life. This year I planted 10 plants, hoping to be lousy with tomatoes by this time of the year. We’ve harvested a few but I’m still waiting. Since I don’t know any sun dances I’m posting this in the hopes that we’ll get some ripe tomatoes this year. And if anyone knows how to speed the process, please let me know!

The plants grew along the back and side of the house, to get the southern and western sun. We grew tomatoes and zucchini every year in back. Sometimes we planted green peppers, eggplant, cucumbers or string beans. The side garden held tomato overflow and every summer I would plant the bottoms of some scallions at the end, near the chimney, after we’d eaten the tops. The mint patch abutted the side garden, but it never encroached on the tomatoes.

Beginning in August, I’d survey the garden daily, looking for precious patches of orange, then pink, more pink, darker pink, and finally red. “Mommy!” I’d scream, yanking open the wood screen door and rounding the corner to the kitchen, “We have tomatoes!”

“Really?” She’d follow me outside. “Where?”

“Right there, Mommy!” I pointed.

“Where? Oh yeeaah, there it is. It’s red, all right.”

“Can I pick it?”

“Are you sure it’s ripe? Could get redder, you know.”

“Please, can I pick it?”

“Go ahead, Honey.”

I ran to the patio and bent the stake at the end of the chicken-wire fence, squeezed behind it, and tiptoed around the plants to get to the right one. “Here it is, Mommy!”

“Go ahead. Pick it.” I wrapped my hand around its warm skin, feeling its delicate heft, and plucked it from the vine.

“Got it! Can I make a sandwich?”

“You can do whatever you want, Honey,” Mom said.

I went inside and pulled out two slices of white bread. “Cut it for me, please!” I said. My mom ran it under the sink and cut out the stem part in a little cone with the little knife she used for everything. I got the mayonnaise out of the fridge. She cut the tomato into round slices.

“Be right back!” I said, running out the back door.” I headed to the side garden and pinched off two scallions, then ran back inside, clutching them in my fist. At the table, I laid out both slices of bread, spread them with mayonnaise and ripped the scallions to fit the sandwich, laying them on the left-hand slice. Mom brought over the tomato slices and I laid two slices on top of the scallions, decided the sandwich could take one more and added it. I topped it with the other slice of bread and took a bite. The soft bread, the warm sweet and sour of the tomato, the creamy mayonnaise and the tang of the scallions combined into the sweet, lazy flavor of summer.

We also made tomato salads. My current favorite recipe is one ripe heirloom tomato, cut in small 1/8 wedges, drizzle with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, heavily salt, lightly pepper and add fresh oregano. Oriste!

Victory Garden

This year will be different, I thought. This year she’s old enough to really enjoy the garden.

We started in February with the peas. “You love peas, Rose, and you know what? We can grow them in the garden. Would you like to help Mommy plant them?”

“Yeah! Yeah!” exclaimed my excited two-and-a-half-year-old.

“Ok, well here’s the seeds,” I said, handing her the envelope. “I’ll get my gloves and we’ll go back to the garden.”

“Ok!” she said, fiddling with the envelope. Halfway back we had to stop.

“No, Baby, we don’t open them yet. No, don’t shake! We don’t want to lose them! Ok, I’ll take them,” I demanded, holding out my hand.

“NOOO!”

I grabbed them. “Yes! I told you, if don’t have the seeds, we won’t grow any peas.”

“I want them!”

“We will play with them in the garden.”

“I WANT THEM!”

“Ok, sit here, Sweetie. No, no, don’t walk in the garden. Sit on the grass! Sit!”

“I want to go here!”

“But how are we going to plant the peas? We have to plant the peas over here!” I said, grabbing her arm. “Sit!”

“Ok, so here’s what we do: take the little rake like this and run it across the dirt like this.” I showed her.

“I want to do it!” Finally.

“Here you go.” She ran the hand rake over the soil, dug it into the ground, and catapulted a divot onto the grass. “No, Baby, now we have to dig holes for the little seeds. A divot flew past my face. “Honey, give me the rake. Give it to me.” I reached out for it.

“NOOO! I want it!” she said as I yanked it out of her hand. “I want it!”

“Don’t you want to plant the peas?”

“I WANT IT!”

“Ok, Sweetie, why don’t you take the rake and go over there.” Happily, she settled down on the site of the future tomato bed. A divot shot past my face. Breathe in, breathe out. “And Mommy will plant the peas.”

Strawberries

“Today we’re going to plant the strawberries, Sweetie. Oh boy, looks like we’ve got a lot of weeds. Guess I’ll start pulling them.” Rose climbed up on the rock wall with my trowel. Fountains of dirt flew, peppering the driveway. I grabbed a weed and pulled. Rose looked up.

“What are you doing Mommy?”

“Pulling weeds,” I said.

“Can I pull weeds?” she asked.

“Uh…sure, Sweetie. Come over here and I’ll show you.” I pointed, “This is a weed. Grab it at the bottom and pull it out.” She grasped her little hand around it and pulled. It came up, roots and all.

“Can I do it again?” she asked.

“YES!” Hallelujah. “Pull this one right here.” And she did. “No, not that one! We want that plant!” I pointed out some more weeds, and she kept pulling. Fantastic, I thought, It’s just destructive enough to hold her attention. And she’s really helping.

Lettuce

“Today we’re ready to plant the lettuce,” I said. “Help me pull out the weeds first.” I wielded my hand rake. “Pull that one, right there.”

Rose grabbed the hand rake. “I want to dig!” She raked the ground. Divots of tilled, fertilized, composted soil flew into the grass.

“Do you want to dig up the weeds over here? That’s where we’ll plant the tomatoes.”

“I want to dig!” she said as the ruts got bigger and the grass got buried.

I sighed.

The books said that kids are supposed to like gardening. It’s playing in the dirt, after all. Rose loves eating vegetables off the plants, so I know she’s got gardening potential. There are so many great lessons for me to teach her in the garden too. Science, work, sustainablility. She’d benefit so much from this. If only I could get her to like the process and not just the result.

We were working on the herb garden and Rose tromped across my seedlings. “NOOOO!” I cried. She kept tromping. “No, don’t walk there!” I nudged her backwards, out of the garden.

“MWWAAAAAAA! You pushed me!” I’d made her cry. How could she like the garden if Mommy made her cry?

“Ohh, Sweetie. I’m sorry I pushed you. I’m sorry. Can you listen for a second?”

Sniff, “Yeah.”

“Ok, those little plants? They’re babies. Little babies, so we’ve got to be gentle with them. If we walk on them they break and then they can never grow up.”

“Ohhhh.” She kneeled down and stroked the babies. “Hi babies.”

Wow, I thought, it worked.

Tomatoes

May came along and I set out to buy tomato plants. I had an idea. “Rose, would you like to grow your own tomato plant?” I asked.

“YES! I want one!” she yelled.

“Ok. Mommy’s going to the farmer’s market and I’ll bring you back a tomato plant and it’ll be all yours. You can take care of it and eat all the tomatoes it grows. Ok?”

“YES MOMMY!”

Ok, maybe we’re getting somewhere. I’ll believe it when I see it, though. I came home with some plants.

“Is that mine?” she asked, holding up a yellow pear.

“Uh, no, Sweetie. I got this one for you,” I said, pointing to a Sweet 1,000 plant. They’re supposed to be hardy and prolific, so I thought it would be perfect for her.

“Can we plant it?” she said.

“Now? Well, sure, ok.” We set out to the garden. I pulled out a big pot.

“Fill this with dirt, Sweetie. Take the shovel and get the dirt from the bag, and put it in the pot.”

“Ok,” she said, as I tried to guide her hand. “I DO IT!”

“Ok.” And she did. She scooped dirt out of the bag, and dumped it in the pot. She had almost filled the pot when I stopped her.

“Honey let’s plant the tomato. We need to take a little bit of this dirt out because we need to make room for it,” I said as I scooped some soil out. “You go get your plant.”

She brought it over. “Ok, we’re going to take it out of that pot and plant it in this big pot,” I said. She turned the pot upside down and began to shake.

“NO, BABY, GENTLE!” I gasped as I grabbed the plant and turned it upright. I pulled it out of the pot and clipped the lower leaves. Deep breath. “Ok, now we make a hole in the pot. Can you do that?”

“I DO IT!” she yelled.

“That’s what I said.” Soil started to fly. “Ok, Honey, that’s deep enough. Let’s plant your tomato.” I put it in the hole. “Now you get to bury it. Bury it with dirt up to about here.”

“Ok,” she said, as she pushed dirt onto the plant.

“That’s enough, Sweetie. Good job,” I said, smoothing soil. “Now we just have to water it and we’re done.”

“I WANT TO WATER!”

“And you will. Let me get the hose.” I brought it back and held it for her.

“I DO IT!” she yelled.

“Ok, Honey, let Mommy hold the hose because we have to be gentle and Mommy knows how. You can point it at your plant.”

“Ok.” Whew! We watered her tomato, and then I let her water the rest of the garden.

“That’s it, Sweetie, we’re done. We just have to check it now to see if it grows. And you’re going to take care of it from now on.” Satisfied, I took her inside.

The next day, Rose ran out on the deck, peered down at the garden and cried, “Yaaay! It’s GROWING!” She couldn’t even see her tomato plant from there. She was happy about my garden. Victory.

Care and Feeding

A week later, we shopped at Lowe’s and I bought her some Dora the Explorer garden mats. They were cheap and I needed a mat anyway. She saw the Dora gardening gloves and wanted those. Sure, anything to encourage her in the garden. I threw them in the cart. We went to another department and my brilliant husband said, “Did you see the ‘Sesame Street’ garden tools?”

“No!” I said, surprised. “Do you think she’d like them?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think she’d love to have her own tools.”

I took her to the display. “Hey, there’s Elmo and Cookie Monster and Abby!” she said, picking up the little bags of tools.

“Which one do you want, Sweetie?” I said.

“ABBY!”

So we bought the Abby Cadabby bag. It held a plastic hand rake, two shovels, five tiny pots and a pack of pumpkin seeds. Rose insisted on carrying it around the store. She napped after the store, but the minute she woke up, she picked up her bag of tools and said, “Mommy, can we go to the garden now?” Victory. Matt is a genius, I thought, thank God I married him.

Now whenever she sees the Abby bag, she wants to go to the garden. This morning I told her to wait until I’d had a shower and she walked into the bathroom, asking, “Are you done yet, Mommy? Can we go to the garden now?”

Today we planted her pumpkin seeds. Victory.