During this, the serious tomato-tending season, I often think about the parallels between raising tomatoes and raising kids.
For starters, both efforts require seemingly endless amounts of work. There is always one more scheme, whether it is fertilizing a plant or a mind, that some expert somewhere has said you absolutely should be undertaking if your are serious about growth. I tend to believe that kid-raising and tomato-growing are pretty much on-the-job training experiences. You learn as you go.
That doesn't stop folks from telling you what you should be doing. Merely by attempting to bring kids and tomatoes into this world you automatically expose yourself to a hailstorm of advice. Everybody has an insight on proper development that must be shared.
More often than not, the theories conflict. The disciplinarians tell you that you should keep a tight rein on both kids and tomato plants, restricting them, directing their growth.
Meanwhile, the libertarians advise you to let nature work in an unfettered fashion. The child and the tomato plant should, they say, be allowed to roam.
I think of myself as a disciplinarian. But in quiet moments of reflection, I sometimes see that my kids and my tomato plants behave as if I were a pushover.
Which leads me to the matter of posture. Neither kids nor tomato plants want to stand up straight. In their early days, both tomato plants and kids tend to be spindly. They seem vulnerable to any ill wind. In fact, they are amazingly resilient, bouncing back much faster from any setback than we, their older keepers, thought was possible.
The other day, for example, as I struggled to correct the posture of a cherry tomato plant that had thrown itself across the garden, I was struck by how much the sprawling plant resembled a certain teen-ager stretched out on a sofa. Limbs were draped in all directions. The position looked wrong and uncomfortable to me. But correcting the posture of the teen-ager or the tomato plant seemed futile. As soon as I left the scenes, both the tomato plant and the teen-ager resumed their original poses, and seemed perfectly happy.
Another similarity between tomatoes and kids is that they both grow in sudden, alarming bursts. Almost overnight they are poking out of pant legs, toppling tomato cages, tossing off old clothes and dead leaves. What is it, I wonder, that fuels such spurts? Is it all the expensive nutrients we feed them? Is it nature's timing? I tend to believe it is orneriness. Tomato plants and kids grow to keep us, their caretakers, guessing what will happen next.
Both tomatoes and kids are fond of water. Children are great fans of splashing in a pool, or running through a sprinkler, or aiming the hose nozzle so that it removes the top four inches of soil from the yard. Tomatoes, too, enjoy flowing water. No matter how sorry its appearance, a row of droopy tomato plants can, it seems, be revived by spending an afternoon under the garden hose.
I have also found that both tomato plants and kids respond well to threats. Experience has taught me that one way to hurry along slow-moving kids is to start the engine of the family car. Once kids realize the driver might actually make good on his threat to leave without them, they quickly get in gear, find those missing shoes, and get out the door and into the car.
With tomatoes, a proven way to hurry them along, to get reluctant ones to ripen, is to threaten to go on vacation. Just walk to the garden and announce, within earshot of the tomatoes, "We're going on vacation tomorrow." The next day, get in your car and drive away. Before your car gets two blocks from the garden, at least four tomatoes will have turned from pale green to fire-engine red.
There is little doubt that raising kids and tomatoes tests your fortitude. For endless hours, you cultivate and pamper them. You wait for some reward, for some sign of progress. Then, just when you are about to throw up your hands in disgust, something pleasant happens. You show up at school, for example, and hear a teacher singing the praises of your "kind" child, the same kid who at home regularly announces his deep-seated desire to beat his brother to a pulp. You show up at the garden and discover that a row of spindly tomato plants, a row you were going to replace with pumpkins, has miraculously come to fruition. It surprises you. It makes you feel proud. It makes you think your efforts were worth it.
By the time this column appears, another Fourth of July will have come and gone. If tradition holds, my garden will have failed to produce ripe tomatoes, thereby marking me, in the minds of some people, as a less-than-successful gardener. Moreover, I will also be a moral slacker, in the view of some, because my kids still enjoy the primal thrill of shooting off fireworks. I have even been known, in previous Julys, to slip over the border into Virginia with the kids and shoot off fireworks that aren't sold in Maryland.
Which proves, I guess, that I believe in talking the tight-reins talk, but in practice I cut both my progeny and my tomatoes a lot of slack.