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Tomatoes in the desert

I lived much of my life in central Illinois, on a glacial plain. The seasons were accommodating, the soil was rich and the rain plentiful. If you wanted a garden, you could stand in the back door and toss out a handful of seeds, then stand back.

My mother was a great gardener. The daughter of farmers, she had a huge messy overgrown garden from which she harvested really good stuff. She also grew a cherry tree from a pit, but that’s another story.

When I moved to high desert country in New Mexico, I found my gardening gene was still alive and well. My first domicile here was on the third floor of a building that had very nice grounds, but the small balcony of my apartment was one of the few places in Albuquerque that got virtually no sun. In the afternoon, a small patch of sun shone on a corner of the balcony. My cats, then three of them, competed for that spot. I was always afraid one would fall off, but it never happened. However, a plant I’d put there did bite the dust. Thank goodness, there was no one underneath.

When my six-month lease was up, I found a unit in a triplex that featured a small private courtyard. It gets plenty of sun, believe me. The soil … well, it’s not soil. It’s sand, caliche sand. That means heavy alkaline sand. So I got a growing box, a really nice one. It has a hinged top with pvc hoops and it came with two covers, a sort of filmy one designed to filter the intense sun and a plasticy one to create a little greenhouse in winters. The covers have long since bit the dust, the filter one disintegrating into shreds and the plasticy one now a big wad of torn plastic that floats around the courtyard. I’ll replace them soon. I also collected big pots that have no covers at all.

I grew some good stuff for several years. Greens in winter (boy were they good), tomatoes and peppers in summer. Oh, those tomatoes. Flowers.

Then I had a couple of bad years and didn’t plant anything at all. But this year, I was newly-retired and had plenty of time. I braved the crowds at the garden club’s sale and bought 4 heirloom tomato plants and several assorted herbs.

I risked my life for those plants. Hordes of crazed gardeners descended. I had hoped for a chance to talk to the gardeners. Ha. Those gardeners weren’t talking to anybody. They were selling. Selling to out of control … gardeners. I had never really thought of gardeners as being violent.

So I secured my plants and mixed fresh soil and compost into my grow-box and big pots. I watered faithfully and sprinkled organic fertilizer. Then we had a heat wave. And a heat wave in the desert is something to contend with. My herbs did well, but the tomatoes. The tomatoes grew into lush green plants covered with blossoms.

But no tomatoes. I emailed the Albuquerque Master Gardeners and got a nice reply. Just wait, the MG suggested. The heat wave was keeping the plants from fruiting. It cooled off a bit and sure enough, a handful of tomato-nubs appeared. And that’s all they did.

Eventually, three of the tiny things turned red. I harvested them, took them inside and arranged them carefully on a plate, with basil leaves for garnish.

Finally, I bit into one. It was all thick mushy, tasteless pulp.

Okay. That won’t stop me from doing it next year. I’ll study up on growing heirlooms and find a less dangerous source of plants. Or maybe I’ll just buy some Burpee’s.

I guess if you’ve got the gardening gene, you’ve gotta garden. And if you’ve ever tasted homegrown, vine-ripened tomatoes, you’ve got to have them. Even if they’re Burpees.


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