No, it wasn’t a Zen moment.
Had someone been walking down the gravel road where we reside, they might have seen a solitary figure hunched over a small raised bed behind our house. That would have been me, of course, frozen into a focused immobility, peering intently into a tangled patch of indeterminate tomatoes that had been abandoned to their fates. The tomatoes—Lori’s idea, not mine—were supposed to climb twine supports rigged to a T-frame, and would have if not for a windshear that plucked them one by one from their supports. Since that time the tomatoes had done their best to broaden their perpendicular proliferation on a horizontal plane, thereby replicating a particularly virulent pumpkin which seemed destined to overspread much of northeastern Kansas.
Gardening is one of those activities my wife loves to read about, dream about and initiate. She also likes to harvest the fruit of her labors. She’s less keen on the lengthy middle portion, the central stage where watering, debugging and maintenance, often in hundred-degree temperatures, exact their toll on energy and interest. Maybe she’s witnessed too many gardens wither and die from infestations of various and sundry insect species, drought, hail, hurricane-force winds, fungus, blight, raccoons, possums and other furry critters.
This is where I come in. My job is to do the grunt work, and for the most part I do so without complaint. Besides being less squeamish when it comes to destroying invasive bugs, I’ve learned that a husband with an expensive taste in camera gear needs all the attaboys he can get. I water and weed and inspect for interlopers, in general keep the garden alive until she can reap its bounty. It’s kind of like a good cop-bad cop scenario: She’s the good cop, always sensitive and caring, while I’m the cop who swaggers into the room with his sleeves rolled up, a nasty grin on his face and a grim “Who gets hurt?”
For some reason—whether the timely rains, the unseasonably cool spring, the luck of the draw—local gardens are flourishing this year. Last year weeds were the only crop that stood a chance of success, and even then they struggled. You know it’s bad when dandelions and dock look sickly and splotchy with fungus, though why remained an unanswerable question.
Suffice to say, this year is a bumper crop for everything planted. It seemed as if our green thumbs had returned, that everything we touched flourished and blossomed and hung heavy with fruit. And about the time we patted ourselves on the back with rash and imprudent congratulations, confident that this year our labors would break the spell of defeated gardens past, the bugs showed up.
Almost overnight the tomatoes took on a scraggly look, the outer stems barren and stripped. Squash and cucumber leaves turned yellow and blotchy. The tangled verdant drapery of our Tumbling Tom tomatoes dried to a dull brown lace, each leaf desiccated to a brittle husk.
The memory of that morning of discovery has been burned into my consciousness. The deep grass was dewy with moisture, the sun just rising above the wooded corridor of Juganine Creek, shadows long and thin—a beautiful morning, not quite cool but cool enough to be refreshing, the kind of morning one finds satisfaction in any endeavor no matter how slight or difficult. And there was the garden, our bountiful, profuse garden, only it didn’t look so well now, it looked like me before my first cup of coffee, baggy-eyed, hungover with exhaustion, listless. The plants didn’t stand tall as they had but drooped and sagged, sad wan ghosts of their former selves.
For a long time I stood there in shock. Lori would be heartbroken, I knew, and bitter and violently angry toward the culprits, and though she would not blame me there was a real and present danger of being tainted with culpability. And because I had just exercised our credit card on a particularly lavish expense, that I couldn’t allow. I turned my back to the garden and went to assemble my arsenal.
First, the nukes. Under normal circumstances I dislike using pesticides but sometimes there are no other options. On inspection I found potato bugs and squash bugs and blister beetles and unnameable others swarming under the leafy vegetation, and I smote them high and I smote them low and their corpses rained down like gray ash. A few tomatoes were ready to pick so instead of Sevin I used diatomaceous earth to coat the remaining leaves and ground beneath. And then I went to work with a rusty pair of pliers.
Hornworms were abundant. One by one I plucked them off and stomped them underfoot. It was work both messy and satisfying but ultimately deceptive, because for every one I found another two remained hidden. Day after day I discovered more even as leaves vanished and the plants took on a deserted, ghost town air, and my hours were filled with poring over stems and branches, of peering deep into the green depths of an untamed jungle, past spiderwebs and mantis lairs and the interior workings of a universe without order, until it seemed there was nothing else but the hunt and the kill and the hope of redemption.
Terrific log of your struggle, Tom. My sympathies. About three Christmases ago I bought my dad two hanging-garden bags to put onto poles to allow tomatoes to grow down instead of up. I bought soil with special nutrients to help with growth--all via the internet. Cost about $48. Everything turned disastrous, much like you describe. I could not help but wonder just how many succulent tomatoes I could have purchased at the local farmers' market for that same $48.
Anais Nin said, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are". So true.
You write about tomatoes and hornworms, your grim determination to find the right weapon and the desperate sense of inevitability, and I'm right back in my Mom's hospital room, knowing what the outcome will be but still trying everything possible.
Apparently I'm a little more raw, still, than I realized. And you're a good writer. Not everyone could touch the heart with a post about a failed Kansas tomato crop. ;)
I love how descriptive and vivid your writing is! This story is so great! I don't know if Aunt Lori has ever checked out an "Earth Box"? They make gardening so easy, and take out a lot of the grunt work! I only need one Earth Box because I only care to grow tomatoes, but they help keep out bugs, you can't over or underwater, and the vegetables come out great. I think they are much better than the upside-down Topsy-turvy things. Anyway, good luck gaining control of your garden!
Carol -- Every year we go through the same math and always—always—arrive at the conclusion that we'd save a lot of money, time and effort if we just bought produce from local gardeners and farmer's markets. And every year we plant a $#%&^%^%$$@ garden anyway. Freud would have much to say about the subject...
Linda -- I don't like the sound of that one bit. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.
Vikki -- I'll check out the Earth Box. Frankly, I'm ready to ditch the garden and just buy veggies from the farmer's market. We have one on the corner and another delivers to the News office. Can't get more convenient than that.
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