Man’s need to involve himself in the soil, to cultivate and irrigate, terrace and landscape, to get down on his hands and knees and muck about with shoots and seeds is ageless. It has changed little since he first adapted his nomadic “hunter – gatherer” way of life to agrarian pursuits. Even now in our more highly evolved “commuter – franchise owner” existence we still feel the need to plant seeds and pathetically watch as they grow, wither and die pointlessly. This compulsion was quite movingly stated by Paul Muni in “The Good Earth”: “A man must have land.” An updated version of this apothegm was more recently expressed on “Green Acres”: “a man must have land – and a large breasted Hungarian woman that wears nightgowns twenty-four hours a day”.
I am reminded of these things as I look out my fly specked window and see the grisly, gnarled remains of long dead house plants and flaccid ferns. There on my fire escape lies a veritable Sargasso Sea of withered geraniums, leafless poinsettias and desiccated spider plants. Gifts from some well meaning friend or relative I usually find this vegetation, unwatered and near death, under last month’s copy of “The New York Review of Books” or beneath a pile sweaters that have been on their way to the dry cleaners since spring training. Finding these birthday cacti and African violets on death’s door I am overwhelmed by guilt. To assuage these pangs I uselessly drench the dusty leaves under the faucet and then set the pot out on the fire escape. I always feel that they should spend their last few days in the sun, such as it is. (An analogy that comes to mind would be to take a dying bird and throw it out the window.) The only healthy plant in my apartment is in my kitchen. It is the Gallapagos turtle of garlic cloves that has somehow managed to thrive in my refrigerator since the day I moved in. In fact if I ever want to determine exactly how long I’ve lived at my current address I’ll just go chop down the garlic and count the rings.
Now you might imagine that someone with such a talent for botanical abuse, not to mention fern malfeasance, would be the last to have any interest in vegetable husbandry. After all, I live in Manhattan where, as we all know, apples and eggplants grow magically out of specially constructed wooden crates in the climate controlled oasis’ of Whole Foods and Fairway. But no, as the days lengthen and the temperature rises this young man’s fancy turns to…tomatoes. And I’m not talking about some long legged babe named Dolores from a Raymond Chandler novel either. I’m referring to the fruit of the vine, the love apple. About this time every year I have visions of rows of lush green plants heavily laden with bright red fruit with myself standing proudly at their side. So every spring, like a salmon returning to spawn, I take the LIRR to my parents house on Long Island and spend countless hours and hundreds of dollars trying to grow four or five pounds of edible vegetables.
This fascination with suburban farming began when I was very young and was one of those few things that formed a unique bond between my father and I. (The others being the Mets and the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.) Every spring, on the first Saturday in May, I would awake to find my father digging up his little garden patch. It lay next to the fence that separated our yard from the next; a barrier that also kept at bay a 200 lbs. slavering, barking monster of a German Shepherd that our neighbors had playfully named Zeus; an animal that had terrified me my entire childhood. I would run outside and help pick out the rocks that would mysteriously migrate back into the garden year after year. On Memorial Day, I’d watch as my father carefully planted the tender young tomato plants. For the next two months we would check the garden on a daily basis for progress. First the tiny gold flowers would appear and then the marble sized green fruit. Slowly they grew in size until they were giant, red and juicy. I would watch my father as he tenderly picked the first tomato of the year. Then he’d march proudly into the house and set it on the kitchen window sill to ripen fully. I would wait a few days longer until the first rotten tomato fell to the earth. I would then tenderly pick it up, walk to the fence and wing it at Zeus, smiling proudly as the wormy mess dripped from his snarling face. I have loved that garden ever since.
In return for my invaluable assistance I would get a small section in the back to grow whatever I wanted. I don’t know why but year after year I would try to grow summer squash. The strange part is I didn’t like squash, still don’t, but there I’d be, carefully planting the seeds in little hills, six seeds to a hill, hills two feet apart. And every year the little plants would sprout up and grow into long vines which would bear beautiful yellow flowers that would, rather anticlimactically, simply fall off. That was it. No squash. I didn’t know what to do. I finally asked my father and he said maybe they weren’t getting pollinated. I asked if I could polident my plants. My father, looking somewhat embarrassed, spent the next hour explaining about pistils, stamens, birds, bees, thoraxes, abdomens, ovaries and sperm. Afterwards I wasn’t positive but the way it sounded to me was that I would not be able to have squash until I found the right girl, fell in love and got married. Ever since then the squash have been on their own.
Now, years later, the job of tomato maintenance has passed on to me. Being an incredibly busy metropolitan creative type I employ the scientific, road of least resistance, method of gardening. The first Saturday in May I rent a rototiller. This is a wonderfully efficient machine that enables me to enjoy the oft sought after sensation of water skiing in dirt. Then, after spreading the freshly turned earth with real desiccated cow manure (accept no substitutes), I cover it all with scientifically designed plastic mulch (garbage bags) that prevents weeds from growing and precious moisture from escaping. It also makes it possible to not actually come in contact with the dirt, or smell the manure, until the following year.
The front rows of the garden are planted with, what else, tomatoes. These come in cell packs with names like “Big Boy”, “Supersonic”, “Beefsteak” and this year’s big seller “Chernobyl Red Giant”. The back row I reserve, nostalgically, for strangely shaped and weirdly textured designer vegetables. Things like oriental vines that produce things that look like a cross between a cucumber and a goiter. These usually grow in reverse proportion to their usability. Last year my most prolific plant was an egg shaped Malaysian tuber. After harvesting a bushel of the rock like ovoids I read the fine print on the seed packet and found out that they are inedible in their raw form. They must be gummed continually by the elder unmarried women of the village for a period of one to two months, then pressed between two palm fronds and buried until the following year. What happens then it didn’t say but presumably the putrid remains are dug up and burned and the tribe orders in.
Perhaps the most difficult part about being an urban suburban farmer is annually relearning my attitude towards bugs and rabbits. Insects are no longer automatically thought of as tiny, satanically possessed, carriers of filth and disease. No, now some of them are benevolent little caretakers. It’s like being told that some of the people at Motor Vehicle are actually there to help you. Conversely rabbits are no longer cute little, nose-twitching, Easter emblems. They are now the enemy; malevolent little fur balls that wantonly and perversely destroy plants and vegetables and deprive friends and neighbors of bushels of unwanted produce.
By August the little tomatoes should be beginning to swell and turn red. Bursting with pride I usually count and sometimes name the early arrivals. Then I start casting an appraising eye on neighboring gardens. Like any other suburban parent I try to compensate and make excuses for my offspring if they are somehow inferior: not enough sun in the backyard, planted late, the wrong pre-school. If for some reason my little red orbs are bigger than average I take full credit, convincing myself, and anyone who’ll listen, that I possess some special, supernaturally bestowed gift for growing vegetables. Our biggest rival in this annual game of “que es mas `mato?” has always been my Uncle Frank, my father’s lifelong friend and chief plant competitor. Since childhood I can remember my Uncle dropping by our house around the first week in August to admire my father’s plants. He’d walk over and condescendingly remark on the four or five pea sized fruit and congratulate us on a job well done. Then he’d unload a couple of crates of homegrown produce from the back of his car and tell us that he didn’t want to see it go to waste. Now it is important to understand that my Uncle Frank has always had an unfair advantage. He’s Italian. And I don’t mean from Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst, I mean from Italy. As everyone knows Italians have an amazing rapport with plants. My Uncle can spit a grape seed into an ashtray and a few days later be making wine. I, on the other hand, am of Irish extraction. We are best known for making wonderful music and haunting poetry and for killing off hundreds of millions of potato plants in the mid nineteenth century. If there is one thing about the Irish that clearly isn’t green it’s their thumbs. In the face of this handicap I have endeavored to valiantly carry on the family tradition of trying to grow much more food than we could use and then smugly inflicting shopping bags full of oozing tomatoes, tiny eggplants and gherkin sized cucumbers on friends and relatives. I like to think that my father has looked down approvingly upon my efforts. I especially hope that he was watching last fall when I triumphantly presented my Uncle with 30 pounds of rare Malaysian sweet potatos. I would have hated to see them go to waste.
Published in New York Perspectives June, 1995