Some gardeners go too far when planting tomatoes

THE REAL DIRT

May 11, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Whew. Gardening is hard work. I just spent an hour planting one tomato, and I am pooped.

Let me explain. I am pooped because I plant tomatoes differently from most folks. Normal gardeners dig a shallow hole, add some fertilizer and drop in the plant. And their tomatoes do just fine.

I am happy for these gardeners. However, I grow tomatoes on my own terms. When preparing the planting site, I pretend I am moving trees. Big trees. Twenty-foot oaks with huge root balls.

In other words, I overdo it.

For each tomato plant, I dig a hole three feet deep and two feet wide, using a long-handled shovel and sometimes a post-hole digger. No kidding. This is a monstrous task and one in which I am usually joined by Katydid, the dog, who sees what I'm doing, wags her tail and immediately begins to burrow alongside me. If I'm lucky, she digs in the spot where the next tomato plant will go.

Gradually, I slice through layers of earth revealing the history of my garden. The black topsoil turns brown, then red, then to rock. The deeper the hole, the slower I go. Sweating and aching, I recall last year's bounteous tomato harvest and press on. Two feet underground, all the earthworms vanish. I chip away at the different strata of rock, examining the unusual ones. Is this the layer of earth where the dinosaurs disappeared? I must be getting close.

Finally, the job is done. My hole is dug, but my companion retired long ago. Where is Katydid? Bored with my incessant digging, she has fallen asleep in the grass, where she is lying on her back with all four feet in the air.

My wife appears, curious. She looks at the hole and frowns.

"Are we getting an in-ground pool?" she asks.

I tell her I'm planting tomatoes. She rolls her eyes. She thinks I'm crazy, but I know there is method to this madness.

My work continues. I replace the clay and rock at the bottom of the pit with a 12-inch layer of compost and well-rotted manure. The compost I take from an aged heap that has been simmering nearly 20 years, when crock pots were in vogue. The manure is a gift from Dexter, a neighbor's old horse who will never know the esteem in which I hold his rear end.

The fertilizer in the bottom of the hole is my late-summer gift to the tomato plant, whose roots should reach it by August. In return, we will have luscious tomatoes until winter.

Now it is time to refill the pit. Only the best soil goes back in the hole. Nearer ground level, I pamper the plant by adding a blend of organic fertilizers such as cottonseed meal, bone meal and rock phosphate.

Finally, its bed made, I tuck in the little plant, angling its roots and burying all but the top cluster of leaves. I feel guilty doing this; most of the plant will never see daylight again. But the buried stem will root, producing a stronger plant and better yields.

Exhausted, I collapse alongside the dog and gaze at my handiwork. With only its top leaves showing, the poor tomato plant appears to be struggling in quicksand and disappearing fast. However, all I can see is the tip of the iceberg. Underground, the tomato's roots are already stirring, mingling with microbes and pumping new growth into a plant which may produce as much as 50 pounds of fruit this year.

I have room in my garden for eight more plants, which means we could harvest 450 pounds of tomatoes this year, provided they don't all ripen while we are away on vacation.

Tomorrow I will plant another tomato by the same method. I will stand in the garden and dig to Kingdom Come, while assuring the neighbors that I am not building a bunker against a SCUD attack. And then I will plant another tomato, and another, until the row is complete and my back is bent like a crookneck squash.

But right now I am just going to lay in the grass under the warm sun, assured that my tomato plant is truly content. So is the dog. She is starting to snore.

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