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Commentary & Opinion

My Regrettable Vegetable Garden

Ralph's forlorn tomato patch
Ralph Gardner Jr.
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Not exactly a victory garden

Rural Intelligence, a stylish weekly newsletter about the Berkshires, Connecticut and the Hudson Valley this week featured a story about a garden tour happening today, Saturday benefiting the North Chatham Free Library. The twist is that it’s a vegetable garden tour, not a flower garden tour as these events typically are.

I read the story with some anguish even though all four gardeners are self-taught and apparently maintain their own gardens. That’s no longer a given as the region becomes increasingly swanky.

One of the gardens is experimenting with cover crops and soil additives. Another is working with twenty-three planting beds, sixteen of them raised. A third is a first-year gardener who planted “three sisters heritage seeds to great success.” I’m not sure what heritage seeds are, Three Sisters or otherwise. And the fourth garden has installed an electric fence to control deer.

I shouldn’t jinx my own garden but so far this summer vermin is the least of my problems. The deer have stayed away, content to nosh on my apple and chestnut saplings. The woodchucks have laid low. And the chipmunks are keeping themselves amused around the foundation of the house.

Actually, things have gone reasonably well if your only goal is growing produce. My cherry tomatoes are the gift that keeps on giving. And the full-size tomatoes I planted, heirloom and otherwise, have produced specimens in hues of red, yellow and green – sometimes all three within the same tomato – and so bounteous that a single slice provides the contents for my favorite lunch this time of year: a tomato and Gruyere cheese sandwich.

A word about tomato sandwiches. My family gives me grief because I use supermarket white bread richly slathered with mayo. Either Arnold’s or Pepperidge Farm. I consider these brands a reluctant concession to flavor because my heartfelt belief is that nothing does the trick like Wonder bread. What you’re looking for in the bookends to a tomato sandwich is something that takes a step back, that tells your tomatoes: “We humbly concede you’re the star of this show. Our role is to make you shine, not to show off ourselves.”

I’m not alone in my politically incorrect bread choice. A recent recipe in the Washington Post for a southern tomato sandwich featured what the author described as “squishy” white bread, though nostalgia rather than flavor, or rather the lack of it, motivated his choice. He also went with lavish quantities of mayo, as well as salt and pepper, but left out the cheese. I concede the argument. But as far as I’m concerned Gruyere adds a little complexity without upstaging the tomato – I judiciously shave rather than slice it onto the sandwich.

The problem with my garden isn’t fertility, it’s aesthetics. It looks like hell. There are weeds growing up all over the place. I don’t mean in the planting beds, but that’s only because I weed them occasionally. I mean in the spaces between the beds.

I realize I shouldn’t be so superficial. The problem is that I’ve visited some pretty fine gardens recently. Judging by their weed-free appearance, museum quality fencing with scenic garden gates, crushed stone pathways, and overall Tuscan or is it British loveliness, my firm suspicion is that these destinations aren’t the result of the sweat and tears of the homeowner, as mine is, but a team effort – the team consisting of the lord and/or lady of the manor’s money and a professional part, if not full-time, gardener.

What makes the enterprise even more annoying – I’m happy to stipulate that I suffer from vegetable garden envy – is that these gardens aren’t the centerpiece of the property. They don’t try to draw attention to themselves, allegedly. It’s as if the land baron would have you believe they’re working gardens, with a premium on sustainability. So what if they’re producing prize-winning tomatoes, eggplant and peppers in a storybook setting.

Last year I put down mulch between my five planting beds. Guess what? Weeds love wood mulch. It doesn’t suffocate them; it nurtures them, offering them a medium to grow unencumbered. This year I tried straw. I should have known that wasn’t going to work. The stuff is lighter than air.

I’m thinking of throwing in the towel and next year laying down gravel. But I doubt that will work either since the weeds have already taken root. By the way, does anyone hate dandelions as much as I do? If the U.S. military is looking for the next weapon of war they might just want to explore dandelions’ demonically possessed root systems.

Perhaps the only true solution is blacktop, tarmac. I’m pretty confident that was the pavement of choice that filled the spaces between the planting beds in one garden whose owner recently gave me a guided tour. But, frankly, I wasn’t paying that close attention because his automatic, timed-release, soil moisture sensitive, computer-monitored watering system was such a wonder to behold.

Don’t get me started on drawing a hose from the house to the garden and then jousting with the mosquitos at dusk only to have your spouse complain, when you return with one of the most glorious tomatoes in the world that the skin is tough. Believe me. It’s not. She just finds it hard to acknowledge that I’m capable of producing such perfection.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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