Tuesday, March 17, 2015


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (2/14/2015)


          The problems with growing tomatoes aren’t the tomato plants themselves.  It’s everything else, such as hail, sleet, downpours, howling winds, drought, bugs, vermin, insects, bacteria, fungus, and viruses, to name a few.  The tomato plant is defined as tender which means it’s easily afflicted. 


          Years ago while I had my offices on Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles, a well-known motion picture actress made an appointment to see me.  She was beautifully painted, powdered, and perfumed, but all that glitters is not gold.  She said. “Dr. Smith, I’ve heard many wonderful things about you, but I’d like to say something before we begin.”


          Softly touching the back of my hand, flawlessly manicured nails aglow, she said, “Now, I want you to be completely truthful with me, but you must understand that I’m easily hurt.”  As she spoke a barely perceptible twitchy smirk played across her lips.  I thought I saw deep in her eyes an untouchable lunacy, the kind of lunacy that takes pleasure in confusion and chaos.  Our encounter was brief and unsuccessful.  She always comes to mind when I think of planting tomatoes.  Sadly, my relationships with tomato plants have often been brief and unsuccessful, “now and then” misfortunes.  Last year, hail wiped out almost all of our tomato plants.


          Like the actress, tomatoes are beautiful, and as Cole Porter wrote in Jubilee, sometimes they are “just one of those things, a trip to the moon on gossamer wings, just one of those things.”  


          To make them more than “just one of those things,” the tomato grower has to think defensively, something like defensive driving in which the driver thinks everyone else on the road is a maniac.  Plant them far enough a part (3 feet) so that airborne diseases may not easily travel from plant to plant.  Also, it’s needful to control the soil so that soil borne diseases may not infect the plant.  This means sterile soil in containers.  The soil should be friable and moist, not water-logged.  A heavy feeder, they require a 5-10-5 fertilizer.  Since they are delicate and are prone to fall over, they are best grown in cages.  Also, the cages allow for rapid cover in case of hail, a “now and then” thing in Flagstaff.  An excellent compendium on growing tomatoes is online at http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/mg/vegetables/tomatoes.html.


          While the problem isn’t with the tomato plants themselves, the harsh climate in Flagstaff isn’t congenial to these tender and fragile vines.  Our growing season isn’t long enough for those luscious heirloom tomatoes grown in warmer climes, maybe the ones remembered as a child.  In short, growing tomatoes in Flagstaff and environs is against the tide.


          Grief is an inevitable experience with growing tomatoes.  Most of the afflictions that befall growing tomatoes do not happen in the early and middle stages in the development of the plants.  They occur during the monsoon that cusp of time when the color of the fruit on the vine is beginning to turn to ripe, gold, deep red.  Sometimes, the calamity strikes after the color has turned when the gardener is ready to pluck the fruit.  The hail storm almost always strikes when the plants are full of ripe and ripening fruit.


          However, all is not lost.  If the gardener manages to thread all of the hazards without calamity, the rewards are above any monetary value, almost transcending into spiritual ecstasy.  The experience of plucking a golden Siberian cherry Galina in the middle of the morning when the sun has warmed the garden is a delight without compare.  The taste is complex and exquisite and worth the work and heartache.


          The same can be said for another Siberian, Sasha’s Altai, and the Czechoslovakian Stupice.  Along with the Galina, they all come to maturity in 55-60 days, a necessity with our short growing season.


All that glitters is not gold, but the fact remains that gold glitters.  Tomatoes are the gold of gardening, and they worth all the fussing, anxiety, and grief.  Beyond compare is the taste of a home-grown tomato flushing out the debris lurking in our mouths and awakening again our taste buds to a resurrection of grace.     

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2015

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun.  Smith’s email address is stpauls@npgcable.com and his blog is http://highcountrygardener.blogspot.com.


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