Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 27

July 4-10, 2002

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Back to My Roots

But though an old man,
I am but a young gardener.
— Thomas Jefferson: Letter to Charles Wilson Peale, Aug. 4, 1811

Tom, I know how you feel — even though I scored a first this year, which I’ll tell you about in a moment. I’m an old man, but as a gardener I have come to realize I’m young. How times have changed; more accurately, how gardening has changed.

It’s not that I’m really new to gardening. Heck, as a country boy in New England, I practically grew up with squash, potatoes and lima beans as my playmates.

Boy with a Hoe
It was ‘Weed this, weed that; hoe here, hoe there; water this, water that; spray this, spray that; and get all the weeds while it’s hot, or you’ll be pulling them again tomorrow.’

That was during the Great Depression. Back then, a garden played a major role in how the Burtons lived. At our household the budget was tight. In summer, the success of a garden had much to do with what was put on the table.

It was pretty much the same in the remainder of the year, as mother sent me to the cool cellar to get Mason jars of canned tomatoes, beets, pepper and cucumber relishes, corn, beans, cabbage, rhubarb. You name it: If it came from the garden, it could be preserved for winter — except such perishables as radishes and lettuce.

At Grandma’s farm a few miles away, where I was a frequent visitor, the garden was even more important. Not only was it a major source for what went on the table, it was depended upon for income.

Grandma was a widow, had been since I was six, and her garden was also her money source for paint, the dentist, church, clothes, medicine, house, outbuilding and fence repairs, taxes and other things that couldn’t be grown in the rich New England soil.

So whether I was home or spending a day or more at Grandma’s, much of each summer found me not at a ball field or skinny-dipping in a pond. No sir, I was in the garden, hoe in hand and in the heat of day because it was hammered into me that only a withering sun kills uprooted weeds.

Only when I marched off to the SeaBees in World War II was I able to kiss good-bye the gardens at Grandma’s and home — with the vow that never again would my hands have calluses from a hoe. Even Navy boot camp would be a picnic compared with garden pursuits. Or so I thought.

An Old Man’s Garden
But like many farm-raised boys, once an adult I’d dabble in vegetable gardening every so often — though not seriously. My efforts were primarily to taste a truly fresh tomato or head of cabbage or, best of all, the greens from fledgling beets, so rare in markets, though not in my memory.

Steamed with melted butter and salt and pepper, nothing save lobster, lamb and shad roe can top fresh, tender and young beet greens for table fare. They put to shame kale, dandelions and other leafy vegetables.

Several years ago, Tom, I decided it was time to have a garden of some sort every year. I had retired from the Sun, could make my own work and travel schedule, and I’d noticed what fresh tomatoes and even green peppers cost in the supermarket, where they were so deficient in taste.

So, Tom, I’m back at vegetable gardening — though you might not call it that. My garden consists of six huge pots on the north side of the house where the sun can get by all the trees I’ve grown.

Amidst the flower garden on the east side of the house up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County, I found room to plant four more tomato plants and two peppers. At the front of the house, I put in a pepper plant where it could get what morning sun manages to filter through the maples that I always promise myself to tap for sap — but never have.

That pepper plant, I discovered to my dismay after I brought it home, was called Super Cayenne II, but I figured the long and thin red peppers would serve decorative purposes. I don’t like anything hotter than a radish from a garden, but I have a friend, Alan Doelp, who hails from West Texas. Chili and peppers are never hot enough for him, so I’ll put him to the test.

There have been other surprises. Of the two peppers I planted in pots alongside the tomatoes on the north side of the house is one I’m curious about. It is already producing, but the peppers are beige, almost white. Though tasty, they don’t have the snappy taste of the standard green bell pepper.

A Late First
Tom, things have changed much since I was a boy into serious gardening. Like you, I feel young at it. For instance, there’s one tomato plant robust and healthy, but the produce when ripe is a pale orange.

In New England, it was considered quite an accomplishment to have a single ripe tomato in the garden by the Fourth of July, but darned if this plant didn’t produce three vine-ripened tomatoes by Father’s Day. I gave one to Chio, a neighbor, and she tells me they’re of a variety with low acid for those whose allergies can’t take the traditional juicy big red brands.

So, I’ve had my first-ever home-grown tomatoes before the Fourth, but I miss the rich flavor of Big Boys, New Yorkers and the like.

Garden Surprise
Then I have an even more mysterious tomato plant flourishing in some ways and not in others. It, like the Super Cayenne II, came by mistake in my haste to grab the healthiest looking plants before other early gardeners one busy late April Saturday morning at the Farm Market on Dorsey Road in Glen Burnie.

When I got it home, the little plastic sign stuck into its soil read Pineapple Tomatillo. I’ve never heard of it, nor has anyone I asked. I called the market, only to get no help. I don’t see the species mentioned in my garden books. Maybe a reader can satisfy my curiosity.

Matured, the leaves are not tomato-shaped but more rounded. There have been many blossoms and all have turned somewhat into cockle shell-shaped hollow balls. I examine them daily and have yet to see any development toward a tomato. So what do I have: a tomato shaped like a pineapple or a pineapple shaped like a tomato? Or something resembling neither? All I know is I have a robust, high and wide plant — the biggest of all I’m raising — and not a single clue of what to expect.

In my rebirth at gardening, I’ve found other changes, Tom. When I was a kid, you fertilized tomatoes with a generous handful of fertilizer, and that was it. From then on, the plant was on its own. Now they have stuff like Miracle-Gro, a fertilizer mixed with water and sprinkled heavily on the plant every couple of weeks. Heck, when I do that, I sit back and witness a growth spurt and more blossoms — and presumably more produce. Am I cheating?

I’m learning and re-learning all the time, Tom, and though there are some mysteries in this year’s effort, I’m a happy camper, what with my first tomatoes almost three weeks before the Fourth of July and many a home-grown pepper already in salads.

Tom, when your most productive days were spent writing the Declaration of Independence and running this country for eight years, you had no time for gardening. You had to play catch-up later, and I’m in the same box. For me and you, you can take the boy off the farm, but not the farm out of the boy.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly