TODAY IS Preakness Saturday, and that means it is time to plant the tomatoes.
I would like to list a variety of scientific reasons -- freedom from frost, high median ground temperature and ideal dew point -- explaining why I think this day is the best planting date. But the truth is I plant tomatoes on Preakness Saturday out of habit and superstition.
Putting tomatoes in the ground as the ponies run at Pimlico is one of the few consistent patterns in my life. Preakness always falls on the third Saturday in May. So later in the year, when something goes wrong (or right) in the garden, and I consult garden books, I automatically know the answer to that nettlesome question all gardening books pose. Namely: What was the planting date?
There are some people who keep detailed records of their garden. Not me. I show up with a hoe and a hunch. Rather than probing the database of my computer to find the date the plants went in the ground, all I have to do is scratch my head and announce "third Saturday in May."
This Saturday becomes the reference point for all my garden math. For example, when figuring out when the tomatoes that are supposed to ripen in 65 days will actually be ready to eat, I know to start counting from the third Saturday in May.
Superstition also plays a role. Any gardener worth his humus engages in some fertility rituals when he puts plants in the ground. I won't divulge all of mine, but I did notice there was a full moon the other night. And yes, I did leave my pepper plants out, to absorb a little May moonglow.
I have been getting ready for today's big planting event by engaging in that laborious process known as "preparing the soil." Another term for this process is "grunt work."
I chopped down the garden's "cover crop," mainly weeds. I "turned the soil," sometimes with a shovel, sometimes with a pick. I added compost, trying to achieve the ultimate "loamy and friable" soil that sends master gardeners into ecstasy. Then I then fell on my knee and offered supplication to gods of the garden, asking, "Please, please, please spare me from blossom end rot."
While down on the ground, I saw a familiar garden companion, a cutworm. I dispatched it. I spotted several more in the freshly turned earth, and went on an impromptu cutworm hunt. That is one of the joys of communing with nature, one minute you are wallowing in the muck, the next minute you are on a thrilling cutworm safari.
This spring I plan to employ a new gardening aid that will, I believe, deliver me into the land of exceptionally fat tomatoes. Every year, it seems, I have a different new weapon. One year it was straw. Another year it was fish carcasses. This year it is crab chum.
Crab chum is what remains of the crab after it has gone through a crab picking house. That is how Pat Condon described crab chum to me yesterday. "The crab houses pick the meat and we get the rest," he said. Condon is general manager of New Earth Services, a Cambridge, Md., outfit that mixes composted crab chum with a fine sawdust, puts it in 20 pound bags and sells it as Chesapeake Blue Soil Enhancer.
I bought a bag of it this week at a garden supply shop, Valley View Farms.
Yesterday, in a telephone conversation from Cambridge, Condon assured me that the crab chum mixture would smell better than spoiled crabs and would assist me in my quest for fatter tomatoes.
The garden mix, which contains nitrogen, and calcium, has been around for seven years, he said. But Condon acknowledged it is sometimes hard to find. Not all garden-supply stores carry it. And at times this year, he said, the company hasn't been able to bag the composted crab chum fast enough to keep up with demand.
Condon testified that in prior summers he has put the mix on the tomatoes that he and his wife grow in their backyard garden in Cambridge and has been pleased with the results.
"I don't know why it works," Condon said. "It just does."
Feeding my tomato plants crab chum requires a leap of faith. I worry that my beefsteak tomato will end up tasting like a Jimmy. But it is a leap I am ready to take. The time is right. It is Preakness tomato-planting Saturday. If it will just stop raining long enough for me to get a shovel in the ground, life will be good.