lessons from tomatoes

I’ve been thinking a lot about gardens lately. Somewhere in Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott uses gardening as a metaphor for life: you plant some things, you look after them, they grow, some of them die, you learn, and then you plant more (or other) things. Gardening is a good metaphor for life because gardens are full of life (hopefully).

A few months ago, a couple of friends of mine went on a road trip. They would be gone for about three weeks, so they needed someone to look after their cherry tomato plants. I seemed the most suitable/reliable candidate, so one week-end they brought two large pots, each with several little tomato plants, over to my place. The only instructions they left with me were to water them every day, and make sure they got lots of sunlight. 

Of the plants I had prior to this, the majority were succulents, which don’t need much water; and the rest, various leafy things, I watered maybe twice a week. As such, I was a bit worried about this daily watering schedule. But it actually worked out ok (which I believe is more of a reflection of my wanting to be a good friend rather than wanting to be a good gardener), and the tomatoes actually flourished, more than doubling in height by the time my friends returned from their trip.

A week or so after they were back, my friends returned to have a look at the tomatoes and take them home. As gratitude for taking care of them, they said I could keep one, and we put that one in the ground by my front fence. The rest were to go back to their place, but my friend suspected there was a turkey or possum around that might destroy them all, so he selected one as a “tester”, saying they’d return for the others if all went well with this one.

Some time after that, they developed a plan to move to Adelaide, and somewhere between then and now it was decided that I would just have to keep all the tomato plants. If I didn’t like tomatoes, or if I didn’t like gardening, I probably would’ve been quite displeased; but my only sadness was at the thought of them moving so far away.

When they returned, my friends also brought over a small container of plant food: they said to sprinkle a bit on once every fortnight, or whenever I remembered. They also taught me how to distinguish between stalks/vines/leaves that were alive and well, and those that were fading and dying. Any that were past their time needed to be pruned so that the plant would not waste energy and nutrients on them, and could focus instead on the branches bearing fruit.

In my diligent care of these tomatoes, I’ve since learnt that they are a mine of life metaphors.

The pruning process is like removing negativity from one’s life – negative people, bad influences, self-destructive habits, counter-productive over-thinking – to allow time and energy to be redirected to something positive, productive and nurturing. Sometimes it’s easy to tell when a branch is going to die because the leaves are already yellowing and withering, sometimes it’s a bit harder; but it’s usually easy to tell which are healthy, and sometimes it’s the contrast that helps.

Interesting side note: the plant that has given me the most tomatoes is also the one with the least leaves. Perhaps here is a metaphor to avoid empty pretence…?

The need for daily watering and plenty of sunshine (weather permitting) is analogous to the need for regular self-care (actual water and sunshine should probably be part of self-care too). I have plenty of excessively busy days, but I always make time to tend to the tomato plants. Some days I prune them in the morning before going to work, and I often water them at night, before getting ready for bed. No matter what is about to happen, or what has happened, I can make time for these simple acts, and they remind me to look after myself too.

I’ve also learnt that tomatoes are quite resilient if you look after them in these simple ways – just as we might be if we had a good sleep and some good food. Last week, in attempting to reposition a branch smothered by other branches, I accidentally snapped it. This was upsetting because it had a little bunch of green tomatoes on it, but the branch was holding together by a few threads, so I positioned it as best I could, and left it there. Every day I check on it, I’m surprised that it hasn’t died and fallen off.

And a bit of hope to finish on: When my friends returned from their trip, we discovered a few new shoots amongst the bigger plants. We kept these together in a pot with my leek, and they seemed to do ok (but one of them quietly withered – probably because it was overcrowded). A few weeks ago, I harvested my leek, and repotted the two little tomato plants.

One seemed to do ok, but the other struggled a lot: it was severely drooping, and none of the few leaves it had looked very healthy. At first, I thought I should give up on it, but something stopped me from pulling it out of its pot. And so, I continued to water it every day, along with the other plants. And, after not more than a few days, I was delighted to see a little green sprout unfurling from the main stalk. I think it might just recover.

9 thoughts on “lessons from tomatoes

  1. Lovely thought here. I enjoy growing tomatoes and peppers and herbs. They are more hardy than they look, as you’ve noted. Plus there’s nothing better than seeing a little bit of effort on my part, encourage plants to do their own things in their own way. Lots of wisdom in gardening.

  2. I nearly lost a tomato plant recently but, as you said, they are more resilient than we think. A few new shoots are peeking out now. How satisfying is it to eat what you grow?!

    • It is amazing seeing them recover and grow like that! And very satisfying to eat, and to share, the literal fruits of one’s labour. I gave the first harvest to my parents, feeling proud as a child presenting some 4th grade science project 😀

  3. Pingback: more lessons from the garden | pistachio conspiracy #63

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