Sunny with a Chance of Tomatoes: August Notes from a Chico Garden

photoI inhale the smell of damp earth and acrid fermentation. I look down to see a giant, half rotten Better Boy centimeters from my right elbow, which is holding me in a modified plank as I stretch my arm up and through the wire fencing toward the prize: Big, ripe, succulent tomatoes hanging in giant, mocking clusters, in the very middle of what has become a fifteen by twenty-foot tomato thicket. I can’t get to them from inside the fenced garden because the plants are so monstrous. I’m crouching on the other side of the wire, bending it into arm-sized holes and reaching as far as possible with my left arm.[1] My right leg instinctively extends in the other direction, and suddenly I’m in yoga class.

Later as I’m halving the Early Girls for the food processor, destined for tomato sauce which I will freeze in saved plastic hummus and yogurt containers, I come across what looks from one side like a perfect specimen. That is, until I put pressure on it with the paring knife and it pops open, squirting pus that smells like (I imagine) a ruptured plague boil all over my shirt. It reminds me of my friend who works at a deli explaining how she can no longer even look at tomatoes, apparently after one too many experiences with horrifically rotten ones. Just talking about it makes her grow pale.

I’m living her worst nightmare. I try not to think too hard about the rotting material underneath the plants and all around me, turning white with mold in some places and black in others, and the myriad crawling insects saddled up to the bar.

Feeding insects was not on my mind when we first planted the vegetable garden (four rows of strawberries, three rows of tomatoes, and a row of peppers, basil, and some cucumbers). It seemed there was room enough. Things got off to a slow growing start and I was worried, but two months later it’s its own ecosystem. An overhead sprinkler rains down from above every evening at 7:30[2]. Beautifully speckled toads burrow under the edges of giant jack-o-lantern pumpkins (compost bin volunteers), and feed on the insects, which feed on the rotting leaves and whatever vegetables I can’t harvest in time. Dragonflies and moths and monarch butterflies dance and hum up above the canopy. Pumpkin spiders big as my thumb hang from dazzling webs, mummy-wrapping their daily catch.[3]

Not only is this display of the earth’s lifecycle right outside my window wonderful to watch, actually harvesting the food is perhaps one of the best things in life. It satisfies in a deep down way that I can’t even explain. I never get tired of it. I’m, in fact, kind of addicted to it. This may be because for most of the day, every day, for the past nearly 20 years, I have made my living by sitting at a computer and typing things. Nothing moves but my hands and fingers. Yes, it’s work. It accomplishes something. I raise money for nonprofits, which actually do things, from buying up redwood forests and preserving them forever to helping a child with Down syndrome be understood for the first time by his family and friends through an app on an iPad. But there’s something else deep in my soul that’s fed when I use my muscles to collect food that I will put into my mouth to sustain those very muscles.[4]

So I’ve been making time for gardening, cooking, and preserving in between my hours of computer work. I’m lucky in that I work from home, which makes this possible. It’s also making my work life just that much more bearable in the middle of this summer’s bounty. I reserved some of the tomato sauce I’d cooked down for freezing last night, and threw together an impromptu pasta dish with local Wookey Farms ground turkey (with more fat and flavor than the strange product you get in the stores), whole wheat rigatoni, black olives, fresh basil and oregano from the yard, a handful of our dried sungold cherry tomatoes, and grated Pecorino cheese.

This morning I collected two quart-sized plastic pots worth of cherry tomatoes, along with a gallon of Italian prune plums, which are starting to come on. The dehydrater is working its way through three more baskets of halved sungolds, and I’m keeping my eye on halved Sebastapols (a large, deep red cherry), brushed with local olive oil and dusted with sea salt, roasting on a low temp in the oven. My first attempt was with too hot an oven and one fateful half hour too long, resulting in little round, black, flattened packets. Inside of the charred outer layer however, was a rich, gooey red center with the consistency and flavor of pizza sauce. It’s worth another try to get it right. Vigilance is critical.

Perhaps my gardening joy sounds a little naïve or passé to those who have been doing this for a lifetime, or for whom farming is as much a part of life as getting out of bed every morning. I grew up in a suburb of San Diego, in a three-bedroom tract house that looked the same as every third house in the subdivision. Our small yard consisted of lawn, a back fence covered at first by pink climbing geranium (though eventually overtaken by ivy), a small, raised kid’s clubhouse in the side yard (inhabited by little greenish gray tree frogs every spring), and two dwarf fruit trees: a nectarine and a navel orange. At one point there were some spearmint plants allowed to grow, dangerously, in the far back corner. I don’t remember ever having a vegetable garden. I do remember picking and washing some of those mint leaves, carefully drying them on paper towels, and gingerly nibbling them in delight over their strong-flavored edibleness. I would pick tart berries off of the hedges in our neighborhood on my way to school, and suck the nectar out of honeysuckle flowers, which were true to their name, tasting like a sweet perfume. But the nectarines and oranges were particularly fun. The trees were probably not tended or pruned well, their production hit and miss. One year we had a bumper crop that required us to deliver grocery bags door to door to our neighbors.

So it wasn’t until I went away to college that I discovered gardening, and did it in one of the most unlikely places: in beds raised above sandy soil on a spit of land between Arcata Bay and the ocean about 95 miles from the Oregon border—a place where not even cherry tomatoes will ripen. But my boyfriend Phil and I managed to grow potatoes and peas and broccoli and dill. I canned my pole beans with dill and garlic. I spent student loan money and weekend hours buying soil and starts and tools and two-by-fours. It seemed to me then, as now, somewhat miraculous that one could grow things to eat in one’s very own yard.

But the years between my first foray into gardening and now were long and hindered by many short-term rentals where I never seemed to have the inspiration. And maybe too, it took the right partner. David is a natural-born green thumb. Last year at his mother’s farm in northern Sonoma County, we took home bushels of tomatoes. She just couldn’t keep up with picking them all (and I wondered if we’d ever have such a crop!). She makes cobblers and pies out of her orchard’s offerings: pear and apple and raspberry and strawberry and peach and plum. Not to mention wild huckleberries from throughout their 40 acres of reclaimed second-growth redwood forest, and blackberries picked out by her sister’s winery down the road. She and her husband pickle their small crop of black olives and make kimchi and fruit vinegars by the gallon. They have year-round greens and peppers in the greenhouse. Eggs from the laying hens and meat from the meat hens and any particularly ornery roosters (you are warned!), and even the occasional wild pig hit along a late night lonely stretch of Highway One. Then there are the wild mushrooms hunted and dried. A constantly busy and satisfying way of life.

Such joy to be a small part of this cornucopia (mostly in the form of eating it when we visit) and to find my own path toward a more sustainable way of life. So back to David. He is smart, unconventional, and motivated by figuring out how to get results on the cheap (my Jewish ancestors nod approvingly from above). He likes a challenge and is not afraid to just build things we need. I, on the other hand, am accomplished at pulling out my credit card and handing it to people. I typically need to be persuaded to his process and point of view. Initially skeptical, I usually end up capitulating in the face of proof… in this case, of thousands of sweet, ripe red gems of all sizes.

The garden started with the collection, up the hill in Magalia, of free horse manure.[5] This was a pain because it required cleaning out the van of pottery David takes to shows and driving up there and hauling the stinky mess back and then cleaning the van out again. But, free. The manure was spread on the plot cleared of Johnson grass, and then promptly covered in wetted wads of week-old Chico News & Reviews, (more free) followed by sheets of cardboard (also free), finally topped by a mat of straw about five inches thick ($7.00). Then the whole mess was given another good soaking. To plant, we simply cut holes in the straw. This process is called sheet mulching, or as my friend Carrie (an excellent gardener and cook) aptly puts it, lasagna mulching.

The plants didn’t seem to be growing well at first. I added a little fertilizer and then decided to plant double of everything just in case. Of course, everything eventually took off. In addition to the tomatoes we intended to plant—starts from Home Depot, the farmer’s market, a neighbor, and David’s mom—there came the volunteers, I suspect out of that sifted Chico horse manure, and well, they just wanted to live so…. That brought the total to 25. Who plants 25 tomatoes? That was three months ago.

So tomorrow will be another morning of downing my first cup, and heading out with my bucket and my knee pads, to do a little yoga underneath a canopy of interlacing vines dotted with endless red and orange balls, each one just waiting for my grasp.

 

[1] I discovered just how much bigger my right arm, due to nearly daily tennis playing, is in comparison to my left, when it got stuck painfully in the fence during one of my early harvesting expeditions…an activity David now refers to as “tomato spelunking.”

[2] Yeah, I know we are in a drought. So shoot me. The almond farmers are bringing in record-breaking yields of their thirsty produce this year, and I’m supposed to let my hard-won homegrown food shrivel?

[3] OK, that’s not quite accurate. There were pumpkin spiders big as my thumb. That was literally a line I couldn’t cross, and if I hadn’t gotten David to relocate them, all of the tomatoes would be rotting on the ground.

[4] Cooking, too, is an activity I love, which takes me into a whole other realm of work…that very basic and ancient work of nourishing ourselves and others by taking ingredients, mixing them up in various forms and amounts, and applying heat, which through some miracle transforms them into something completely different than how they started. Cooking is an ephemeral art, always consumed, and always to be done again, the more intricate recipes like Tibetan sand mandalas destined to be wiped clean upon their completion.

[5] And some purchased from a friend with a farm and former daycare here in Chico, whose manure pile was quite possibly the most fertile, but also the most challenging, as it had to be screened. Out came everything from rocks to screws to Legos and other tiny toys. We’ve saved a small plastic elephant and a Lassie dog, which are sitting on our kitchen windowsill. We call them Poo Friends.

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About temprafaye

I am a consultant grant writer who needs an outlet for creative writing. Not that grant writing can't be creative, and of course I love my work, but when funding is on the line, you have to follow the rules. So I am starting a blog...just like the millions of other people out there. Sorry.
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One Response to Sunny with a Chance of Tomatoes: August Notes from a Chico Garden

  1. John Donovan says:

    Tried to leave a comment and it wouldn’t work. Maybe it is our computer. I loved this blog. Made my mouth water.

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