January 22, 2020

Welcome to the Jungle

'Early Girl' tomatoes

Janine Pineo Photo | ‘Early Girl’ tomatoes

• By Janine Pineo •

I’m not quite sure what possessed me this spring. Whatever it was, I’m reaping the red fruits of it now.

Tomatoes. Lots of them. One could expect “lots” when one has 50 tomato plants.

Fifty! I must have lost my mind.

It started out innocently enough, as all my gardens do. I picked up a flat of six cherry tomatoes (the word `million’ in the name should have warned me). Then I bought 18 Early Girls. Plus, I had started six of my own from a packet of free seeds that came with one of my orders.

At that moment in May, all was well. I knew the only extra plants were the six cherry ones, a variety we usually don’t grow. I knew how much space these would take in the vegetable garden. I knew that 24 regular plants would more than exceed our needs for eating, canning, giveaways and so forth. I knew it would mean a day of picking bag after bag of green ones before the first frost hit. I knew it would mean long hours of canning them this autumn as they ripened one after the other. All this I knew.

Then the phone rang. A family friend asked if we would like some tomato plants. Sure, my family said. I goggled at my beloved relatives and posed the question of where they were going to be planted. There’s plenty of room, I was told.

So I refigured my garden plan, gave six of the freebies away and planted two rows of 24. A short while later, another family friend gave us two more. I smugly thought of how clever I was, admitting there was plenty of room for the plants to branch out and congratulating myself on my preplanning of wide paths between the tomatoes and the other vegetables. Ten to 12 feet wide ought to be enough room, I thought as I patted the last one into place. No more playing Twister in the tomato patch for me.

Hah! I’m gone on vacation for a week and what happens? The 50 are now draping themselves across my 4-foot pathway, tipping into the cucumber bed on the right and waltzing with the green peppers on the left. I have to tiptoe through the vines to avoid crushing the green ones, hoping that cold, slimy thing against my ankle isn’t a frog or, worse, a snake.

On top of that, the squash patch has exceeded its boundaries (set in my mind only, since plants have minds of their own). The vines are climbing through the corn and into the pole beans on the east side, while on the west side the vines have snaked through the cucumber bed and are twining themselves around the tomatoes. Not to mention the vines stretching out in all directions across the back lawn, defying any mowing attempts by sprouting pumpkins and some sort of mystery squash.

I surveyed this jungle the other day from the midst of the corn, which isn’t quite as high as an elephant’s eye. I was checking the ears along the rows when something caught my own eye.

There, nearly as high as a petite pachyderm’s pupil, was a tomato plant. A little farther down the row of corn was another one. And they had blossoms. I’m still not sure how many of them are in there. I vaguely remember fighting my way down between the corn and under squash vines to go inform my family of this latest garden riot. Dumbfounded, that’s what I was.

I am absolutely positive I didn’t put them there, at least not this spring. Just maybe they came from the leftover junk (a more delicate term than the Down East word I was taught as a child, i.e., swill) I tossed back in the garden after canning last fall.
Now when I venture into this tangled jungle with rogue plants sprouting behind every weed, a rather foreboding picture comes into my mind. I see myself balancing precariously on one foot as I search for the next foothold. I find it and as I put my foot down I see I’m about to squash a humongous, state-fair-blue-ribbon, picture-in-the-catalog, tell-your-grandkids-about tomato. I pull back, arms flailing in a losing battle to keep my balance. There I am, flat on my back, staring up at a few cumulous clouds, dazedly wondering how my carefully planned garden got so out of control.

I blame the manure.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in August 1994.

2012 update: Strangely enough, little has changed. I still try to cram too much into the garden, although I do try to be a little more judicious. But I think there are at least 60-plus tomatoes this year …