The Pleasures of Blooming Late

Our tomato plants look better than ever, after being barren through most of the summer.

Our tomato plants look better than ever, after being barren through most of the summer.

It’s the first week of September, when many plants are already starting to drop their leaves. But believe it or not, things are starting to wake up in our garden.

Our tomato plants, which were leafy but largely barren all through July and August, this morning were heavy with large green fruit. Small clusters of buds are emerging from the tops of our hydrangea branches; each will turn into a showy blue flower if frost doesn’t get to them first. Our potted geraniums and window boxes, which were yellowed and sparse six weeks ago, now look as vigorous as the day we took them home from the greenhouse.

This isn’t supposed to be happening now. The first snap of fall, which is New England’s loveliest season, typically is a signal for all growing things to start winding down. Like the final flourish of a conductor’s baton, those first crisp breezes send a clear message that the show is over. But this summer — when the show was in full swing in most people’s gardens — ours was as disastrous as Spinal Tap’s final tour. It looked tired, ignored and unloved, despite mounds of compost, diligent pruning, deadheading, soil testing, weeding and relentless inspections. Our daffodils came up late, a single bloom for each big cluster of leaves. The hydrangeas, newly planted this year, gave a pretty if not spectacular show in early June then stopped. Some of their leaves developed black spots from my well-intentioned but misguided watering, which caused them to burn out. The geraniums, supposed to be the easiest flowers to grow, still struggled in their pots, while gray mushrooms sprouted around their stems. And our tomatoes, despite being grown in an organic “square foot garden” that was one-third compost, produced pretty flowers that never turned into fruit.

Throughout July and early August, other gardeners enjoyed baskets of ruby-red tomatoes, lush bouquets of basil and trumpet-sized zucchini. One friend’s coneflowers were a blaze of purple, while only five of them emerged in our flower bed. I beat myself up over this, thinking that I was cursed as a gardener or that my soil was cursed. The confidence that possessed me in the Spring — when Bob and I fervently worked the soil, dug holes and sunk dozens of plants and transplants into the nurturing earth – shriveled in the searing July heat.IMG_3369

My brother Dan, who visited a month ago, advised Miracle-Gro. I didn’t think this was necessary because I had used compost and figured that an organic approach would be enough. But soon after I began the chemical interventions, the window boxes and pots began sprouting buds, the leaves grew a deeper green and infant tomatoes were born from the yellow flowers. And the hydrangea, which looked so tired for so long, now are signaling a second coming, more glorious than the first. So I don’t feel so hopeless after all. Now we are just hoping we can harvest the tomatoes and enjoy a spectacular flowery finale before frost shuts it down for good.

I think this experience illustrates the pleasures of blooming late, after everybody else has peaked. Sometimes it’s frustrating to feel dormant when everyone around you seems to be growing and thriving. It can be easy to get mired in depressing thoughts that your time has passed, or even that it may never come because you made too many mistakes. But then something happens that surprises you. Maybe it doesn’t happen organically, like it does for people blessed with youth, good genes, inherited talent or a natural green thumb. Maybe you need a little mental Miracle-Gro to force along what nature has shortchanged. My Indian summer garden reminds me that every season of life brings its flowerings, sometimes when you least expect it.

A Bad Case of Tomato Envy

These are not my tomatoes. They are from a more diligent gardener friend.

My friends’ Facebook pages are filling up with proud photos of their tomato crops. They are wondering how they will make use of this embarrassment of riches, the crown jewels from their gardens. I’m sure that many of them are in full canning mode.

But, having just picked my third tomato of the season, and with my two tomato plants filled with smallish green orbs nowhere near ripening, I have a severe case of tomato envy. This was supposed to be the year when I moved from lightweight herb-grower to full-blown earth mother. In late May my son and I planted seedling tomato plants, four green bean plants that we had been given for free, a pepper plant, lettuce and herbs. I envisioned hot summer nights filled with fragrant tomato and basil salads; homegrown lettuce dressed with olive oil and lemon, and the satisfaction of being a true locavore.

Moreover, planting a garden was a way to honor my roots. It continued a tradition begun by my

These are not my tomatoes either.

grandfather, father and uncles. My grandfather’s garden, heavy on tomatoes, took up most of his small suburban backyard. His stone basement included a “cantina,” a cool closet where he and my grandmother stored canned tomatoes and sauces. Uncle John’s garden was truly self-sustaining, filled with tomatoes he grew from the seeds of last year’s tomatoes. His crop kept him and Aunt Betty supplied with tomato sauce through the long Pennsylvania winters.

My dad, once he retired, took up the family tradition and began cultivating part of our back yard. He studied different types of tomatoes and experimented to find out which ones grew sturdily and tasted the best. He could go on for hours discussing the growing habits, seed cavities and tastes of Big Boy, Big Girl, Better Boy, Early Girl and other Burpee varieties. Standing at his garden with his Miracle Gro feeder was a Zen-like experience for Dad. Often, when I came home from work, I could tell my dad had visited when I’d see a basket of beautiful tomatoes on the kitchen counter.

So this year’s planting effort was in part a way to honor my roots, as well as do our part for the planet by creating food that needed little more than foot power to bring it to our plates. We selected two kinds of tomato plants at the local garden center so we could compare how they matured and tasted, and nurtured them with fertile compost. We watched with pride as our lettuce seedlings sprouted (we sowed Burpee’s “salad bowl mix”), and John thinned out the seedlings so they would have a chance to grow. We watched our green bean plants climb up the trellis. We celebrated each new flower on the tomato plants like first-time parents viewing an ultrasound image.

Then one morning, to our horror, we went outside with the watering can and found only pathetic nubs where the lettuce seedlings used to be. Nearby, our firstborn tomato had vanished, carried off in the night by God knows what.

My friend Jane had warned me that this might happen. She had a woodchuck that had terrorized her garden for years, eluding even the craftiest of traps. It could be that the same varmint crossed the street to do takeout at our place.

Then came the July heat wave, when even daily watering was fruitless. Literally. The blossoms on our tomato plants withered away and never turned into orbs. Except for one cluster that included the tomato that the woodchuck or one of his fellow terrorists carried away.

And, to be honest, as the summer wore on and I got busy, I did not fuss over my garden like I did in the beginning. This is an ongoing problem; too many times I start something all gung-ho and then get forgetful, discouraged and/or  bored. I’ll try to remind myself of this when the Burpee Seed catalog arrives next January, filled with impossibly perfect specimens that can never be replicated without a food stylist.

Here is one of my plants. I just picked the red one. The green ones seem to be in a holding pattern.

So now while more diligent gardener friends are enjoying their bounty, I am picking one tomato at a time, and hoping all the green ones turn red before the frost. But each tomato has been worth the wait, sweet and earthy at the same time, and we are still closer to being locavores than we once were.