Aunt Tomato asked me to write this. She finds it all quite droll and amusing. She thought I should start with À la recherche du temps perdu about Italian tomatoes grown in Campania, in the rich volcanic soil in the shadow of Vesuvius, tomatoes the likes of which I have never tasted anywhere. She also suggested I include a short dissertation on Carditello, the summer cottage of the Bourbon kingdom, and its putative role as the birthplace of the unparalleled mozzarela di bufala, and that perhaps from there I should discuss the Reggia Caserta as the rival to Louis XIV’s Versailles, and from that vantage meander to the divine right of kings.
Or maybe not, as I only had 500 words, more or less. It was up to me, she said.
I am not a gardener. I have never been one, nor have I ever claimed as much. My parents, children of the Depression, had large food gardens when I was younger, and though for decades they lived where they couldn’t grow gardens, in the end they got it out of their systems so thoroughly that after fifteen years they had enough. My role initially consisted of whining about weeding and standing around with cold hands stuffed in my jeans pockets. It ultimately was to mow the grass growing over the abandoned garden plot.
But lately I’ve been reading a lot about the need to grow one’s one food, to learn how now before it’s all one has to eat. I’ve read a lot of things, but reading and doing aren’t the same. He who does not do, does not know. Nothing to do but do, and I started planting here and there all around the house, amazed when things actually grew where I set them.
Yes, I thought, I can do this.
So it was that in one of my ignorantly blissful reveries about the joys of self-sustenance I listened to a local radio show with some organic farmers, the kind with acres and employees and actual growing plants. Despite their repeated statements that they grew nothing in July and August, a truly hellish time of year down here in Zone 9, a caller mocked them with the successes of his neighbor, an Italian, who grew tomatoes like great vines in pots that yielded fruit all year round, even in the brutally hot summers of Zone 9. And what was his secret? Well, he planted his tomatoes in 1/3 Miracle Gro, 1/3 compost and 1/3 kibbles.
Yes, kibbles. Why, this is a miracle, I thought. Having lived with Italians, I know they are a crafty people with more than a few secrets of survival up their sleeves. I resolved, too, to grow tomatoes year round in this fertile kibble mix. I bought the twenty pound bag, knowing I needed to be well prepared for my success.
Aunt Tomato laughed, finding it quite droll and amusing, and asked whether I wanted to eat kibble.
I caught her point, but I resolved to do it anyway. Unfortunately, instead of the wonderful local compost I’ve used around the house, I used cow manure compost from a major chain. It would work fine, I declared, and stirred it up with good soil and kibbles. I then transplanted an heirloom tomato and stood back to reap bushels of fruit.
The mixture smelled a bit rank, but the plant took to its new surroundings. Still, it didn’t grow very tall, less than twenty inches. I decided it needed more sunlight, like the hybrid I planted in the soil of a raised bed, and which was racing for three feet. I moved it from my screened lanai out into the bright sunlight.
Outside, though, is also where the heavy rain falls. Cow manure and kibbles make a most unpleasant soup when the torrents of Zone 9 are unleashed. The pot had no drain holes and fearing for root rot, I tipped the pot to drill drain holes in the bottom. The plant fell out, buried under its sludgy soil. I repotted it, watched the odorous liquid drain, and felt fine.
The tomato soon blossomed, many times over. Ah, yes, my genius would soon be rewarded. I added a cage for it to climb, since it seemed a bit unstable, as if drunk on too many pints.
I came out one morning a week ago to find the tomato and cage rudely shoved to one side of the pot and a large hole in the soil. There was no damage to the plant or its one growing tomato, and when I reset the plant and dug out a little hole for it I learned why. There were grubs in the soil. Lots of grubs in the soil. The soil was rife with grubs. My local armadillo was no doubt the diner, he likes grubs, and he’s plenty heavy enough to move the plant and cage.
I left it out overnight again, and peed all around the pot for good measure to discourage whatever visited it the night before. And the next morning, again the tomato had been rudely buffeted and the soil churned up, this time exposing the roots. I felt sure it was the armadillo, but since I had failed to discourage him I had to move the pot back inside my screened lanai.
Every time I moved the pot, there was a pile of grubs in the wet ring under the pot. I fed them to the local ants, who swarmed in delight. I couldn’t even drain the pot now, and the soil had settled into a foul dark paste in the pot. I poked back through the holes I had drilled, and almost nothing came out. I stirred a hole in the top of the soil, and like something out of a horror movie, the soil wriggled. Literally, the soil writhed, having somehow become a giant mass of grubs coated in what was once cow manure compost. It was as if they sought to remind me of my mortality: the worms go in and the worms go out.
Enough. I’ve prepared a new pot of real soil and the tomato will get a new home this morning. No kibbles. Strangely, the kibbles in the pot are undisturbed, and ones I left out in a container when concocting the original formula are also untouched, no maggots, no grubs, no worms, no flies. The experimental soil will get dumped far from the house. May the armadillo feed well and gorge himself on this happy feast.
It’s been hard the past week. My cucumber vines, which swarmed up the trellis in May, bespectacled with yellow blossoms, have utterly withered and died in the Florida sun. Half of my lettuce has evaporated. I had two mounds of watermelon. The cat used the mounds as a litter box, and only one seed ever sprouted. A thoroughly disgusting creature, the tobacco hornworm, ate my first two peppers and half of the plant’s leaves before I found it and killed it with fire. Yes, fire. My sweet potatoes, at least, are swarming far and wide, having taken root in the Florida soil on top of my little hugelkultur experiment. I just don’t know that they are making much in the way of food.
Aunt Tomato cheers for me, offers guidance and sound advice, but little in the way of optimism. After all, I am deep in the heart of Zone 9. 93 in the day, 77 at night, not much time for a fruiting plant to recover. As for the tomato in the roiling soil, literally alive with something that was probably in the cow manure compost to begin with, well, it is droll and amusing. Sadly, it’s also got the only piece of fruit yet to grow on anything I’ve planted down here, one lone green tomato near the heart of the vine.
What have I learned? Mostly, that if it comes time to rely on one’s own garden for survival, I probably won’t survive. At least, not here in Zone 9, aptly named like something out of The Hunger Games, the forbidding zone where nothing grows in the summer but kudzu, alligators and foul-tempered snakes. I might be able to keep them at bay with what’s left of a large bag of kibbles and bits.
(Aunt Tomato extends a loving and heartfelt “thank you’ to Reggie Black for making her Tiny Steps Gardening Wednesday a treat. She’s wiping a little tear from the corner of her eye right now…from laughing. If at first you don’t succeed, Reggie…)