I’m not a tomato-growing expert by any stretch of the imagination, so you may doubt my tomato-growing tips. But just like passalong plants, I can passalong gardening tips with ease.
I did successfully grow a few tomatoes once upon a time when I had a community garden plot in East Dallas. Here in Fayetteville, we’ve dedicated our small garden to herbs and pollinator plants, buying tomatoes at Farmer’s Market or Ozark Natural Foods.
My in-laws, Pauline and Gene Boerner, were known for their gardening and canning skills. When Gene came to stay with us for a while in Dallas (the subject of my latest book, Gene, Everywhere), he shared his tomato-growing tips with me.
Gene was ninety-years-old. He shared lots of insight during his stay, insight that made me reconsider my own life, insight that changed my life. Today, I thought I would passalong Gene’s tomato-growing tips, taking a few paragraphs straight from the book.
In this excerpt (beginning pg. 174 of hardback edition), I had just made lunch for Gene and we were sitting down to eat before I left for work. My immediate goal was to take his mind off Laura, the caregiver we had just hired to stay with him for part of the day. He disliked Laura immensely.
Excerpt from Gene, Everywhere
I slice diagonally, corner to corner, the way Pauline cuts his sandwiches. As the blade sinks into the soft bread, I think of all the sandwiches my Momma made for me. Tuna or BLTs using tomatoes from our garden. Even plain mayonnaise sandwiches, or a slice of bread and butter after school.
“There’s just something? That’s not much for me to go on, Gene. If there’s really an issue with Laura, I need to know what it is. Does she steal your medicine? Does she guzzle whiskey all afternoon? Is she mean to Lucy? Tell me the problem, and I’ll move heaven and hell to fix it.”
He throws his head back and laughs. “No, no, nothing like that.”
“Then maybe you should try and make friends with her.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. There’s something about her.”
“Oh my goodness, Gene. Has anyone ever told you that you’re a broken record?” I chuckle and shake my head at this man who has begun working his way underneath my skin in both an endearing and maddening way. I cut the remainder of the tomato into chunks and place it on a salad plate. For my own lunch, I make a simple green salad and join Gene at the bar.
A big bite of ham sandwich swallows the gossip hesitating on the tip of his tongue. “Ummm-mmmm.” He bestows upon this plain sandwich the universal sound of high approval. After every three or four bites, he takes a tiny sip of tea, the ice clicking against his teeth. When I offer potato chips, he protests. “I better not.”
I want to say, Why not? You’re ninety years old. Have the chips. Instead, in the small window of time between making lunch and leaving for work, I try to keep the conversation light, the topic favorable. I want to avoid another discussion of the bank or Laura.
“This tomato has no flavor,” I say.
“I grew great tomatoes at home.” And just like that, with one mention of the bland imported fruit Gene is consuming, we are walking along the straight rows of his garden, wire cages encircling waist-high plants, sun-warmed and ripened tomatoes hanging heavy on vines.
I swallow a forkful of salad and think of the homegrown tomatoes of my childhood. “There’s nothing like a tomato straight from the garden. That’s for sure. My Daddy only grew row crops—cotton, soybeans, and wheat—but Momma had a garden…”
Gene takes another bite of his sandwich. A piece of tomato dangles from the end. He pulls it out and eats it separately.
“So maybe you could share some of your tomato growing secrets with me? I don’t have room for a garden here, but I’ve been thinking about getting a plot at a community garden nearby. Maybe this spring.
He grins. “Well, I never prune them. Some people take off the suckers, but I don’t. That’s one of my tips. It takes longer for the tomatoes to ripen, but I get more fruit that way. Plus, those branches and vines shade the tomatoes when it gets hot come August.”
He holds up a finger until he swallows another bite of sandwich. “You want to give the ground a long soak once a week, every four or five days in the heat of summer, but don’t get the plants wet. The leaves don’t like water. And they don’t like to be crowded either, so I don’t plant them too close together. They need space to get sunlight and grow.”
“What’s your favorite variety to grow?”
“I never met a tomato I didn’t like.” He laughs.
As I clear away our dishes, I thank him for sharing his tomato-growing tips. “Maybe this summer, I can bring tomatoes to you. That would be something, wouldn’t it?”
He nods but his expression changes slightly, like a whisper-thin cloud has passed in front of the sun. For a moment, he stands at the bar and watches me. Then he turns and walks into the den without another word. What’s going on in his mind? Has he remembered Laura is coming, and he’s upset about it? Maybe he’s feeling thoughtful over his own gardening memories? Or, perhaps he’s simply tired, ready to snooze along with the drone of the news. I don’t know the answer to his nearly imperceptible shift in mood, but it hangs there, like the unsatisfying ending to an otherwise excellent movie.
Tomato-Growing Tips Recap
Here’s a handy-dandy image you can add to your Pinterest gardening board if you’re into that sort of thing.
Do you grow tomatoes? If so, feel free to share your best tomato-growing tips in the comments.
Thank you to everyone who has read my book. Nearly every day someone asks me how to buy one. I’m putting this information out there again.
Gene, Everywhere and The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee (2nd edition now illustrated!) are both available on Amazon, Walmart.com, Barnesandnoble.com, via the link on my blog, and at several local bookstores in Arkansas and Texas. As libraries re-open you may be able to check it out from the library too.
I’ll close with one of the truest things Gene said to me:
Thanks a bunch!
Grace Grits and Gardening
Farm. Food. Garden. Life.