Gardeners can be a fussy bunch. We’ll agonize over seed selection, choosing the varieties that have the best chance of success for our planting zone (I’m an 8b). We start the seeds indoors weeks ahead of the recommended date, determined to be the first one in our circle to harvest the fruits of our labors. We plant early and cover our tender starts with plastic to protect against the cool night air. We compost, we mulch, we water religiously. We stand vigil against all interlopers, be they insect, mammal or avian. Some of us get a little separation anxiety in the middle of the day, ready to rush home from work to check in on our little patch of land. Sometimes we forget that while we are in fact helping the natural process along, nature has gone merrily along for eons and eons before us. We worry too much.
We started a kitchen compost pile last winter. Egg shells, coffee grounds and banana peels went in of course, along with the trimmings from all of the lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and the like that we cooked with or turned into salads over the winter. One spring day I went out to the compost pile to deposit a few items and noticed what looked very much like a tomato plant growing out of the middle of the bin.
We have plenty of tomato plants and only one compost pile, but I didn’t hesitate for a moment in making my decision. Free tomatoes! Awesome!
I sprinkled a little soil on top of the compost and around the tomato vine, only to discover a second, smaller vine growing a few inches away. Knowing that I needed to thin it down to one I left them both there anyway, as each plant had already set fruit. I reasoned that the rich compost would support the vines growing that close to each other, and as nature had a bigger role in making this happen than I did, who was I to argue?
I placed three poles around the tomatoes and trained the vines to grow up the piece of twine I staked into the ground and tied off at the top of the tripod. I placed netting around the whole works to keep greedy birds from pecking the tender flesh of our hearty volunteers. These tomatoes aren’t near a handy source of irrigation, so I make daily treks with the watering can, our two friendly mutts happy enough to follow me out to the edge of our property. Every day I find that a few more flowers have set fruit and what was once a half dozen free tomatoes is now closer to three dozen.
When a few tomatoes on the larger vine began showing their first blush of color my patience was replaced with anticipation. I checked on them in the morning before I left for the day, and again in the evening after I returned home. Each evening the tomatoes were a deeper shade of red than they were that morning. Within a week my wife was biting into the first ripe tomato.
“Oh my God, that’s the sweetest tomato I’ve ever had!”
I’ll be honest and admit that I love growing tomatoes quite a bit more than I enjoy eating them, but I had a bite to see if I could tell the difference between this tomato and one that was store-bought. It was a little sweeter, but sweeter still because of the pleasure I took from discovering the volunteer vine and doing my part to make sure it had enough water and protection from opportunistic critters. Over the next few days we picked all but one of the early ripeners from that first cluster. After the last red tomato was ready to pick, we had a few weeks to wait before the next cluster would start its blush into completion. I checked the lone red globe one morning on my way to work, knowing at day’s end it would be perfectly vine-ripened and ready for the table.
That evening I walked in, kissed my wife hello, and headed out to pick her tomato with faithful mutts in tow. Around the back of the old one-car garage that we’re converting into an outdoor dining room, along the picket fence that keeps our pooches from digging in the raised beds, and on to the former and future compost pile but…hey…where’s the tomato?
“I’ll bet Jan picked it,” I thought. When I went back inside a few minutes later I teased her about not being able to wait until dinner to bite into that last red tomato.
“My tomato’s gone!?”
Uh oh. I went back out, thinking that surely it wasn’t so ripe that it fell off the vine of its own accord. That’s when I noticed the evidence of a heist. We have pecan trees in and around our yard, and plenty of squirrels to help us gather the nuts. Apparently the squirrels were unaware that my philosophy of there being plenty enough to go around for everyone only applied to pecans, and one clever little rodent discovered a way under the netting and into the compost pile where it dined happily on that last red, ripe tomato. I mended the tear in the netting and looked up into the branches of the pecan trees, ready to give the evil eye to any squirrel that dare meet my gaze.
Now we’re waiting, impatiently, for the next cluster to ripen. I’m gathering old compact discs to hang near the compost pile and around the garden because a peach farmer told me that it really helps to keep the birds and squirrels out of his orchard. I’m surfing the Internet and looking for stronger netting, something that will withstand the claws and talons of beasts and fowl. I’m obsessing like I always do, and then I stop for a moment and remember: this is a volunteer. Nature made this happen. Protect it, sure, but don’t go crazy. Let the squirrel have a tomato every now and then.