2019 will be known as a year of tomatoes in our household. Tomatoes galore, tomato extravaganza. A trial by tomatoes. It started innocently enough, way back in February, and according to the book: we equipped ourselves with the Ikea’s Vaxer growing kit – complete with germination trays and a special potting mix – and bought seeds from veritable suppliers. A lot of seeds. I had expected that the “survival rate” of tomato seedlings, through all the stages of re-potting, all the way to putting a two-foot-tall plant into the ground, would be at most 25%. So, we sowed about 70, of different varieties – multi-coloured cherry, salad, and beefsteak, with fancy names likes Marmande, Orkado, Brandywine, Ildi. Black Russian, of course. The seeding trays were plastic, I have to admit, although at least not single use ones. In an attempt to make up for it, I decided against plastic labels and I wrote out the names of tomato varieties with a marker on my daughters’ wooden craft sticks. Not a waterproof marker.. We went away on our winter holiday, leaving my mother with strict instructions about adding water and turning the trays around to optimise light conditions. Ten days later, we came back to 70 tiny seedlings with cotyledon leaves so fragile I wanted to cry. There was no sign of marker on any of the craft sticks; I had no idea which seedlings were what variety. I did cry.
Fast forward to July. Through several re-potting stages – those long, dirt-filled evenings when I questioned our decision to take on an allotment and worried for our marriage – and all the way to our first harvest, I have learnt many lessons. I’ve learnt that tomatoes are fairly indestructible. Even the ones that got broken in the process and simply stuck into the soil developed new roots from the stem and lived on. I’ve learnt that our marriage can probably survive joint gardening. I have learnt that the measure of a real friend is their willingness to take a tomato plant – or five – off you. The distinctive smell of tomato leaves on my fingers, is likely to haunt me through the autumn and winter.
At some point, we acquired these special growing lamps, which glowed pink and purple through the night. A neighbour came to check if we were growing weed and to warn us of police raids. A measure of a true neighbour, then. If I hear a hovering helicopter now, I am prepared to show a policeman at the door my empty packets of tomato seeds.
I learnt, even though I had suspected before, that I am not ruthless enough to make a good gardener – I cannot throw away seedlings, not even the broken or in any way impaired ones. I could barely bring myself to remove those shoots from which new, unwanted, part of the plant grows, although I toughened up on that.
We hardly had any time or energy or space to grow anything else this year. For several months our spare room became a nursery. Our glasshouse is now bursting with tomatoes. Our tomato plantation overflows into the vegetable beds outside. I watch our plants grow in our neighbours’ gardens on the allotment park. Instead of children’s socks, tomato vines drape around washing lines on our balcony at home. For the longest time, most plants had a label which read “Surprise”. It is only fairly recently, once the fruit fully formed, that we could finally identify the varieties.
A couple of days ago I had the first taste of our ripening harvest. It is exhilarating. A tiny bit like delivering a baby – one instantly forgets the pain and the effort and is ready to do it all over again. One thing I would do differently? Perhaps I’d use a waterproof marker, although even that did not matter in the end.