Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tomatoes, by George

Somewhere in my Mom's big suitcase of photos, there's a picture of me sitting in this wheelbarrow, being pushed by my Dad. Or maybe the image is just in my head, but it's so clear it might as well be a photo. When my Mom moved back East, we got the wheelbarrow of my childhood, and we still use it in the yard. I'm sure it's been through a few tires in its day, but structurally, it's as good as new. Counting back to when my parents bought their first house, if my Dad bought the wheelbarrow soon after, that piece of equipment is about 60 years old. That's a lot of dirt hauling. 

My Dad wasn't a gardener when he moved into their house in Arden Park, but he soon became one. My memories of that backyard are fuzzy, because we moved away when I was six. The way back of the yard is where my Dad's garden was. The neighborhood men all chipped in and bought a rototiller and would share it between them. I just vaguely remember being afraid of the rototiller and that the crows would steal all the cherries from the tree before we got to them. 

The house we moved to was in Carmichael. The neighbors on each side opted for no fences, so we had a wide open view of the garden of all gardens, Mr. Gull's garden. He grew everything you can think of, the crows didn't steal his cherries, everything as neat as a pin, he even had a huge boysenberry patch along his back fence. It was a marvel. It was perfect. 

My Dad's garden was not too shabby either, with raised beds and all the usual Sacramento vegetable crops, minus the berry bushes. But every gardener knows that when it comes down to it, all that really matters are the tomatoes. If your tomatoes aren't the best on the block, you might as well just go inside and let those crows steal all the cherries, and while they're at it the boysenberries too.

My Dad's tomatoes were better than Mr. Gull's. That's right, Mr. City Boy had Mr. Gentleman Farmer beat in the tomato department. How do we know this? Did we sneak into the unfenced yard and do a blind taste test? No, we had something better - the word of the Avon Lady. Yes, the Avon Lady let it be known to all her customers that my Dad's tomatoes were the best on the block, in fact they were the best on her whole route. That was worth a bucket of cherries right there, and really who needs dumb old perfect rows of everything when you've got the best tomatoes in probably all of Sacramento?

Sadly, I had no interest in my Dad's garden. I just didn't get the fascination, why he would want to be out there on hot summer nights, going back to the old neighborhood to borrow the rototiller, hauling in cow manure from his friend Mr. Butts (I kid you not) and trying to choose between which tomato varieties to plant that year. The names of those tomatoes did stick with me, and they are the old standbys. Early Girl. Big Boy. Better Boy. Ace. There were no striped or yellow or purple heirlooms in our garden. No, my Dad stuck with the basics, why confuse the Avon Lady. By now those varieties he planted are heirlooms, they've been around so long.

My Dad's been gone for 25 years now, and each year that has passed has seen my love of gardening grow. I wish he had kept a garden journal, I would love to know what he fed his tomatoes, when he planted them, how often he watered. Did he have a drip system? Did they even have drip systems then? What was his secret? 

I wish he could see how his love of gardening did develop in me after all. I don't grow the best tomatoes on the block, far from it. But I do find myself drawn to those same varieties of tomatoes he planted. He spent so much time out there, after work, on the weekends, and it seems the only ones in the family that really understood the joy of gardening were the dogs. They were his faithful companions out back, with Holly the pack leader and Ralph herding the chickens as they ate the slugs. I get it now, and if I could just have one more day with him, it would be in his garden. 

The new addition to our garden plot.
We hauled these old deck pilings from the back of the yard with the old wheelbarrow.
Still rolling along after all these years.

Ready for planting.

Got to have the essentials.
Shovel, trowel and caffeine.
And after, a beer in honor of my Dad.

The canine could look a bit more interested, but she is loyal and keeps me company.

T is for tomatoes!

Mr. Gull might not be too impressed, but I bet my Dad would be proud.