In the early months of the pandemic, while hunkered down in our homes – sometime after the disappearance of toilet paper and hand sanitizer – sometime during the frantic baking of banana bread – there was a sudden shift in the collective consciousness.
We should start planting “covid gardens.” Like post-war victory gardens. An organic homegrown food source. Food security. Satisfaction. Lifted morale.
This awakening of the need to plant was followed by a mad rush for and then the disappearance of seeds. Shipments of starter veggie plants were delayed. Gardeners were forlorn.
After weeks of haunting the local nursery, finally the truck arrived. I stood in line patiently wearing my mask, pushed my cart obediently along the yellow arrows, and wheeled directly to the vegetable aisle. There I claimed four tomato plants: a Roma, a golden cherry, and two of my favorite “Sweet Millions” red cherry. I also grabbed a tomatillo, a green pepper, a jalapeno, and seven sturdy cages. Here, take my money.
My mouth watered at the prospect of summer Caprese salads: juicy ripe tomatoes adorned with bright basil leaves, pillowy mozzarella, drizzled with balsamic syrup. Soulful tomato sauce, simmered with Romas, onion, garlic, and fresh herbs. And oh, the salsa verde!
I cleared one corner of my overgrown backyard – a sunny spot, tucked against the fence. Here the tomatoes would soak up the infinite rays of summer. They would produce so many fruits, I’d be able to share them with my new neighbours. They would be red and perfect, tucked in their charming basket, accompanied by a handwritten note: “Sharing the bounty from my garden! Looking forward to a socially-distanced drink on the patio soon!”
And then ‘Juneuary’ came. Our local nickname for what seemed to be the coldest June in memory. Never mind that I had moved closer to the water – the coastal winds shaved off at least five more degrees. The air was chilly. The soil was cold. We were still wearing pants and jackets. It rained a lot.
By mid-July, it hadn’t even hit 20 degrees celcius yet (that’s 68 farenheit for my American friends/family). And by the time Comet Neowise came and went – when the veggie patch would ordinarily be bursting with the promise of a late summer harvest – there was nothing. One sad, mottled green pepper the size of a walnut.
The jalapeno never grew at all. It just gave up from the beginning, frozen like a deer in headlights. The tomatillo showed some faint promise. At least there were flowers. But the tomatoes – oh my goodness, they were sad. As sad as a child whose ice cream just fell on the sidewalk. As sad as a dog when you pull out your suitcase.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. I yanked out the green pepper and the jalapeno. And then in a moment of ruthlessness, I sacrificed one of the Sweet Millions and the yellow cherry. Maybe the extra space and sunlight around the remaining two plants would allow them to finally flourish.
By mid-August, there were green tomatoes. Cold to the touch. Shivering on the branch. Huddled together in small nervous groups.
I sent my son Bill in Winnipeg a text.
“How’s your garden doing?”
“You should see the hoards we’ve been getting.” He texted a photo of a bowl on his kitchen counter, filled to the brim with lush tomatoes of all sizes.
“That looks amazing! YUM!” I was happy for him. Truly. He had hoards.
With summer fleeting, I chopped off the remaining flowers, then the tops, then the leaves at the bottom. And then my most desperate move yet – an experiment really, though I knew better. I dug up the Roma, re-planted it in a large pot with fresh soil and fertilizer, lugged it to the sunniest spot in the yard, and prayed to the Tomato Gods to please, please, help ripen the fruit.
By early September, the Sweet Millions yield was Sweet Ten. The Romas had basically fossilized on the vine. I discovered a package of hot house tomatoes at the grocery store that weren’t half bad. And a jarred marinara sauce that admittedly I really loved, made only with peeled tomatoes, garlic, onion, and seasoned with family know-how and a pinch of Montreal’s Little Italy.
What can I say. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of the pandemic, it was the epoch of concession, it was the year of sad tomatoes.