Open Letter to the First Garden Tomato of the Year

Dear tomato,

I probably should not be so excited about you. And I especially should not be broadcasting my over the top, speaking to inanimate foodstuffs, excitement to the world, as it makes me sound a little bit crazy. But here I am.

You are comically small, for a tomato that came off of our “beefsteak tomato” plant. It took you forever to grow and ripen. But I watched you, and followed your progress, and you beat out the San Marzano and grape tomatoes, still green on the vine but growing every day, to be this summer’s inaugural garden tomato. I monitored your ripening very attentively as there is a nefarious squirrel in our garden who likes to beat me to the punch and steal a tomato just one day or so before it’s ripe, take a single bite out of it, and then leave it on the ground for me to find, a sort of calling card of its dodgy dealings. I am glad you did not fall prey to that fate and that I got to pick you, fully ripe, this morning. Fuck you, squirrel. I win this round.

I will wait to eat you until Graeme comes home. We probably consume you on slices of fresh bread with a little salt sprinkled on top. We will inevitably wax poetic about how there are just no tomatoes that compare to garden tomatoes. And while I will savour you, I will also feel kind of bummed out, because the appearance of this first tomato also means that it is late enough in the summer to be eating garden tomatoes. It means that summer is half over. You, my little fresh garden tomato, are a wonderful reminder of how sweetness and melancholy often present themselves hand in hand; the start of tomato season is both exciting and magical, and also a reminder that summer will end.

But for now, welcome!

Love,
Anna

PS – Lebanese cucumber, you’re next!

We have become the kind of people who go to gardening expos.

Please excuse the cell phone photos–I forgot my camera.

It all started when Graeme texted me from work the other night with the message: “there’s a plant sale at the botanical gardens tomorrow if you’re interested”. I was. I very much was.  It turned out that his colleague’s mom was going to be in town, and he had found out about the event while searching for interesting activities to do with her. He mentioned it to Graeme, who immediately relayed the info to me, thinking this would be an awesome way to spend a Saturday afternoon. It was.

I turned 30 just a few months ago, and thus age has been a somewhat touchy topic for me as of late; as Graeme and I strolled through the myriad of vendors at the Rendez-vous horticole this weekend at the Jardin botanique, we reflected on the reality that we were now super into going to the kind of events that you take your mom to. I am pretty much ok with all of this, but my recent interest in things like gardening expos is definitely one of the subtle ways I realize that I have, begrudgingly, become an “adult”. How odd.

The expo itself was lovely, and drew a good crowd despite the rainy weather. We wandered through various stalls selling a myriad of different kinds of plants as well as various gardening accessories, and took in the smells and colours. It was a welcome meditative activity after what had been a long week for both of us.

Our principal interest at the expo, though, was to buy some heirloom vegetable seeds and seedlings to plant in the garden this year; we had already planted most of our veggies for the season, but we wanted to add a little variety to the usual mix of tomatoes and leaves that our garden produces each summer. On this front, we were not disappointed at all, and we scored many new-to-us varieties of edible goodies that we fawned excitedly during our drive home (surely another sign that we may be getting old). Our scores included:

source

A San Marzano tomato plant, which grows the infamously delicious tomatoes that make for the richest, loveliest pasta sauces, which we purchased in the horticultural students’ tent.

source

A Paul Robeson tomato plant from the friendly people at Ferme du Zephyr, which Graeme insisted on getting as he was excited about a tomato variety named after the famous singer and socialist and civil rights activist (yes, this is how we choose what varieties of tomatoes to plant).

source

Tomatillos also from Ferme du Zephyr, which we could not be more excited about since it is so difficult to find fresh ones in Montreal.

source

Poona Khera cucumbers from Ferme du Zephyr, which are also very exciting because: 1) they’re YELLOW! and 2) they have a funny name. We were assured that they make for delicious salads as well, but really, their colour is what sealed the deal.

We also bought some lovely organic seeds from La Ferme Cooperative Tourne-Sol. These nice folks were very helpful in advising us on which seeds to choose, and explained how they cultivate their heirloom seed varieties to be diverse, as opposed to uniform, like most seed people prefer. We bought some:

source

Red Cored Chantenay carrots

source

Bloomsdale Longstanding Spinach

source

Rainbow Lacinato Kale

I look forward to seeing how these seeds grow and am glad the farm does seed orders online too–they have a great selection and we are all about supporting coops in this house! I planted all of this potentially tasty stuff as soon as we got home, and will be psychotically monitoring its progress. These veggies are in good company, as we’ve already planted quite a few new-to-us plants and varieties this season, such as: Brussels sprouts; Lebanese cucumbers; horseradish; bok choy; fava beans; chamomile; echinacea; and a few other goodies. We look forward to seeing how the new guys, as well as our usual crop of cherry tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, etc., do.

A post about the gardening expo would not be complete, however, without mentioning Graeme’s fixation on the little corner of the event that focused on these guys:

Oh yes. Bonsais. One tent displayed some old and truly stunning bonsais that awakened in Graeme an apparently long-held desire to become a bonsai whisperer; an ambition which he continually returned to as we strolled through the rest of the expo. He could not let go of the idea and so we eventually found ourselves picking through various young bonsais that were for sale, until my husband, who it should be pointed out rarely even waters our regular uncomplicated houseplants, purchased this tiny beauty:

I remarked to Graeme, continuing our reflections on how we were starting to show our age, that bonsais are a true old person’s hobby. He agreed, but decided that this was ok. A Boxwood or “Morris Dwarf” bonsai, this little thing has Graeme pouring over bonsai growing books he fetched from the library as I type this out. He is apparently very attracted to the idea of having a plant that is likely to outlive him. I am not sure what that says about him, but we’ll see how this goes.

Reviving the Garden

This summer will be my fourth season as a gardener. By now, I have learned that the way in which I start planting each year is roughly the same: inevitably, Graeme and I will have gotten lazy during the previous fall, and we will not have properly cleared things up before the snow arrived, meaning that by now the garden will be an unholy mess that seems unsalvageable. I will therefore hem and haw about whether or not I want to devote my time to this tangle of weeds and dead leaves at all. It will seem so daunting. Despite my ambivalence, my decision, each year, will actually be made for me by my mother, when she randomly shows up at my doorstep (or more commonly, letting herself right into my yard) with a bag full of seedlings. She will instruct me to start cleaning up, and to get them into the soil. I will obey. And so it will begin.

I started gardening when we moved into this apartment, enchanted by the idea of growing my own food, and influenced by my mother’s magical green thumb; I grew up watching her tend lovingly to seemingly thousands of flowers and vegetables and berries, and I aspired to her greatness. I still do; she is the most talented gardener I have ever met. Because of my mother, gardening seemed like the kind of skill any reasonable adult should have; it never seemed optional to me. I am grateful to her for that influence, which was why Graeme and I immediately set to work as soon as we moved into a place that had space for us to grow things. Still, for all of its romance, gardening involves committing to many tedious chores before one can enjoy that transcendent, perfectly ripe cherry tomato; weeding, in particular, drives me crazy, especially as a neighbour’s tree pretty much constantly sheds into our yard. So, while I had a healthy commitment to gardening because I should do it, it took me a while to actually learn to enjoy it. I finally started understanding the hours that my mother spent obsessing over her immaculate garden last summer. I don’t know why, but that year it just clicked for me. I realized how peaceful it is to fall into these summer rituals of watering, surveying the previous twenty-four hours’ growth, pruning a branch here and there, plucking off any ripe vegetables, and spending the rest of the day smelling the residue of a tomato plant on your hands. I finally understood how profoundly meditative gardening can be; it is all about attention to detail, observing the subtlest changes and noticing each new leaf, fruit or sprout. My actual gardening practice still leaves much to be desired–I have a lot to learn, and I get lazy and cut corners far too often, especially as the summer progresses. But when, yesterday morning, the first lot of seedlings arrived in my house care of my always ahead of her game mother, and I realized that once again, the decision was made for me, I hearkened back to last year’s rituals and felt excited to get started. This would mean that my summer was, indeed, about to begin.

My mom handed over two tomato plants, three cucumber plants, and an array of lettuces. That is, of course, just the beginning. But I took some time yesterday to at least clear off a corner of my raised beds for this first wave, at least as well as I could. Before we can start going strong we will need to spend a good afternoon clearing the space out of its debris, and adding a whole lot more soil and fertilizer; things are looking pretty limp at the moment. Despite the current lackluster state of the garden, I found my usual sturdy herbs going strong; the oregano has already nearly over taken its section of the garden, the tarragon was already over a foot tall, the sage and mint are looking healthy, and we have more chives than we can eat already. While keeping these herbs in check is a bit of a terrifying prospect (that damn oregano in particular!), it is always so cool to discover that there is actual food growing out there that took literally no effort on my part. Even more thrilling was discovering that this little guy had already sprouted:

I planted asparagus for the first time last year. Asparagus is a plant that needs to go to seed for at least one, ideally two, seasons before you can harvest it. This is a dangerous prospect when you live in a rental, which is a lesson we learned when we narrowly escaped getting our apartment repossessed this winter. Would you believe that in obsessing over how much it would suck to leave our apartment, the asparagus I had been waiting for was at the top of my list of injustices? It was. I know, I am weird. Thankfully, we are staying put, and I was waiting on tenterhooks as the snow melted to see if my lovely asparagus would come back this year. It did. Hooray! The big question is, of course, whether or not it, or we, will make it until  next year.


It felt satisfying to get my hands dirty and start putting things into the soil. (Another part of my yearly start to garderning ritual seems to be resolving to use gloves that year, in an attempt to not constantly have dirt under my fingernails, and then abandoning that resolve about half an hour into my first planting session. It’s tradition.) Of course, this year, I was helped by my new assistant:

She is enthusiastic, but still has a lot to learn. For example, it would be most helpful if she would not decide to lay down in the middle of the soil, although I understand that it must be a pretty comfortable spot for a nap.

The garden isn’t much to look at right now, but I post these photos as a way of documenting the process from its messy start–full of debris and tiny leaves full of promise–to its inevitable messy end–overgrown tomato plants and bean stalks tangled up in each other. As I am still very much learning, I hope that I can share some of my lessons with you this summer. As well as, of course, the delicious foods that will hopefully result from all the planting and pruning.