Tuesday, July 26, 2011

thrifty tomatoes

On March 3 I reported on the failure of our 2010 tomato crop and described my hopes for a better outcome this year. Earlier this month (July), when BLT's made with homegrown tomatoes should be on the menu, all the named varieties had dwindled to nothing (last year's Roma and Costoluto-Genovese holdovers along with this year's Cherokee Purple and Arkansas Traveler heirloom hopefuls. This year's scraggly volunteer tomato plant bore two pitiful fruits before it died, and last year's volunteer (barely two feet tall) has ONE bright red salad-size fruit that looks promising but feels hard as a billiard ball.

Weakened and discouraged, I have gambled on three overgrown, root-bound tomato plants from the 99¢ Only Store: two Early Girls and one Beefsteak in 6-inch plastic nursery pots.When I bought them, their foliage was grayish and beginning to curl from water deprivation. Generally I don't try to grow Beefsteak tomatoes, which need the warm, humid nights of the Midwest to do really well, and it was already past time for the Early Girls to fulfill their promise. All of these plants had had their main stems cut back to about four inches, while the three or four side stems had grown to over a foot tall and were bearing flowers and tiny fruits. The cut stems, almost a half inch in diameter and thoroughly shriveled, spoke of a nursery's desperate attempt to save one of their main money-makers.

I've never thought it was wise to buy tomato plants of this size or condition, but for just under $3.00 total, I felt I couldn't go too far wrong. At home, I decided to leave the plants in their pots and give them as much water as they could take until they either died or looked more promising. On the third or fourth day of this treatment, I walked out the front door and heard myself say: "Now they look thrifty!"

Thrifty, in the sense of "growing vigorously," was a favorite word of my late mother-in-law, Alice, and indeed she was the only person I've ever heard using it in this way. She would use thrifty to describe animals as well as plants (our cat had "a thrifty coat"; the neighbor's 4-H project piglets "didn't look thrifty"). Alice often said that if a plant wasn't thrifty during its entire life span it would never really recover. This was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a plant didn't look thrifty she would pull it out and throw it in the compost, so of course it wouldn't recover!

Here's a bit of irony. I thought I was being thrifty when I bought three 99¢ tomato plants that weren't thrifty. Yet the experience enriched my appreciation of Alice's colloquial vocabulary (swan, larrupin') and brought back fond memories of  the tomatoes and other thrifty vegetables she grew in Idaho.

Will we get $3.00 worth of homegrown tomatoes this year? In the words of Alexander Pope, "Hope springs eternal" (Essay on Man). There's some bacon in the freezer, ready for those BLT's, and Steve's lettuce crop looks thrifty as can be.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License