Why do we do it? April 17, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
Tags: biocontrols, growing tomatoes, organic gardening, tomato hornworms, tomatoes
After reading my “Ben Picks Ten: Tomatoes” post, someone asked our friend Ben why we bothered to grow tomatoes when they were so easy to buy. And I won’t deny that in tomato season, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood load up on all sorts of ripe tomatoes from our local CSA* , Quiet Creek Farm, and the area farmers’ markets. We eat tomato sandwiches, tomato salads, and tomato snacks practically every day while the season lasts. Silence makes and cans all kinds of salsas and tomato sauces. If we never grew a single tomato, we’d have as many delicious, vine-ripened tomatoes available to us as we could eat and preserve.
But here at Hawk’s Haven, we also grow ten to twelve different heirloom tomato plants every year, as many as our friend Ben can manage to find space for in our veggie beds. True, we wouldn’t die of tomato deprivation or anything if we didn’t plant them. But I think something would die in our hearts: a sense of the rightness of the world. That’s because, in our friend Ben’s opinion, growing tomatoes shows us the cycle of life made visible, and allows us to find our place in it.
That’s not just because the annual spring ritual of setting out the tender tomato transplants and setting up the tomato ladders and cages around them marks the shift from tentative gardening, when of course we’re planting things but the garden could still be hit by frost, to go-for-it gardening, when the soil is warm and you know that, whatever “it” is, if you plant it, it will grow. It’s like the Kentucky Derby in (very) slow motion: You’ve been walking the horses, grooming them, warming them up for the race. Now, finally, they’re in the starting gate.
It’s not just because watching tomatoes grow is exciting and satisfying, the essence of gardening: First watching the diminutive transplants grow into sturdy, thriving, and finally rampant vines. Then looking on as the tomato flowers, which look like clusters of palest yellow shooting stars, transform into tiny pea-sized green fruits that grow larger from day to day under your watchful eye until they take on their final form and deepest color.
And it’s not just because of the delight of harvesting those sunwarmed tomatoes at their peak of freshness and flavor: Snacking on cherry, pear, or plum tomatoes as you pass the plants while tending to other garden chores and feeling the explosion of flavor on your tongue, the essence of summer made tangible. Bringing in a trugful of mixed heirloom tomatoes for a just-made salsa to go with the tortilla chips and margaritas and kick off a “Mexican Night” gathering under the summer stars (and chile pepper lights). Selecting the biggest, baddest, meatiest tomato for your lunchtime sandwich.
Actually, what gives our friend Ben a sense of the rightness of things is tomato hornworms. Now, tomato hornworms would make pretty much anyone’s—not just our friend Ben’s—top ten list of worst veggie garden pests. But our friend Ben can’t help but admire these finger-sized hawk moth offspring, handsome guacamole-green caterpillars with sharp-looking black-edged white “V”s down their sides and a texture of softest velvet. Big as they are—up to 4 1/2 inches—they often go undetected because their shape and color help them blend into the tomato vines. Undetected, at least, until the chewed-up tomato leaves and concentrated dark green droppings give them away.
Of course, it’s easy to deal with a tomato hornworm once you find it: You can stomp it (eeewww!!!) or feed it to the chickens. But much as our chickens would love to eat a big, succulent hornworm, our friend Ben has never given them the pleasure. That’s because something more important was happening.
We’re lifetime organic gardeners here at Hawk’s Haven—we love birds, toads, butterflies, and the assorted other wild things that share the place with us, and have no interest in harming them or ourselves with toxic chemicals. (And, in fairness, we’re obviously not market gardeners who must turn out perfect produce—and plenty of it—for a picky public.) So we’re much more intimately involved with the whole cycle of nature than those who “solve” their pest problems by dumping something on. Which brings our friend Ben back to tomato hornworms.
Every single time our friend Ben has found a tomato hornworm on a plant, I have noticed that it is carrying rows of white oval “eggs” (actually cocoons) of the parasitic braconid wasp on its back. These garden allies have already found the hornworm and laid their eggs in it, and now the hornworm is nothing more than a meal, helping produce more wasps to help me patrol the garden and keep pest populations in their place.
When I see this natural pest control taking place before my eyes, I am reminded of the wisdom of nature, and the natural cycle of which Hawk’s Haven, Silence, and our friend Ben are a part. Nature is conspiring to help me enjoy ripe tomatoes. In its infinite complexity, it is working in ways I cannot. Tomato plant, tomato hornworm, braconid wasp, ripe tomatoes, tomato sandwiches: the cycle goes on. All is, indeed, right with the world.
* What’s a CSA, you ask? It’s a farm that operates by subscription. (“CSA” stands for “consumer-supported agriculture.”) Members join the CSA and sign up for a half or a full share of produce, pay up front, then pick up produce weekly throughout the growing season. Everybody wins: the farmers, who now have cash up front to finance their growing season, and the consumers, who have a wealth of farm-fresh produce all season.