Tag Archive | tomatoes

The Garden that Ate the Community Garden

It’s been more than a few weeks since I’ve written about my garden. I’ve had to pack the kids for camp. I was away visiting family and friends in New York City.  There are several writing deadlines I must complete before the end of next week. And the family is in a bit of transition. More on that in a later post.

But, at the beginning of the summer, I said I would post about my garden, and I’ve got to get back on track.

Since early May I have been tending a 10 x 10 foot plot in my town’s community garden. I have been watering diligently

through this very dry summer.

When I was away,  I left my garden in the care of some  friends who have a plot  adjacent to mine. They have a garden that is not only well cared for but is sealed like a fortress against any critters that may want to feast on their crops.

After a week of being away, I was tempted to drive out to the garden the night we arrived home. But there were kids and suitcases to unpack and get into the house. The garden would have to wait.

No one can tell me that there isn’t a time difference between New York City and Rochester.

Maybe its just the pace of time that moves faster “downstate” because when we returned from our week away in good ‘ol NYC, I was exhausted and slept until after 8 that morning.

I tried to push some energy into my voice when the phone rang and woke me at 8:15.

It was my gardening friend.

“Have you been over to the garden? I didn’t wake you?  Did I?”

No, of course you didn’t wake me, I said, faking a wide awake tone into my voice. But, considering I just got home at nine the night before, and my garden would not be visible in the darkness.

I thought, is she mad? I’m still in downstate jet lag…why don’t Rochesterians get that there exists jetlag when returning from New York City? And you don’t even need to fly to get it!

“Well, you should get over there soon. Your garden is becoming known as the Garden that Ate the Community Garden!”

Indeed. In just one week’s time, my garden had exploded.

Now, compare my community garden at its humble beginnings back in May:

My garden when it was no more than a patch of weeds.

I cleared it and planted tiny seeds:

And now:

Sunflowers have grown taller than my tallest child.

Both the sunflowers – and the children

– have some still to grow:

Pumpkin vines are creeping everywhere. I’ve actually received gentle reminders from my garden neighbors to please retrain my vines back into my garden plot and out of the common garden paths.

And, unlike a sun deprived pumpkin vine, not only am I getting blossoms that have been host to a number of pollen-intoxicated bees, but I actually have 5-10 pumpkins taking shape. I’ll need to make a lot of pumpkin pie this fall.

Not to mention a lot of tomato sauce:

The full sun of the garden has produced such strong leaves on my tomato plants, it looks like they’ve been going to the gym.

There have been some failures, of course every garden has them. My eggplant plants were eaten first by beetles and then strangled and overgrown by the invasive pumpkin vines.

The basil seeds I sprinkled never made it in this dry summer without a good daily watering.

But so far, this experiment in community gardening is paying off. Harvested my first crop of purple beans for dinner last night:

Down and Dirty, Laissez faire Gardening

There are many magazine articles and blog posts that feature sumptuous photo spreads of gardens in full bloomed glory. Beds of perfect tulips. Rodent and insect-free vegetable gardens bursting with a unbitten, sun-ripened bounty.

This blog post will not be one of those. This is for the rest of us.

Any chance of me having one of those gardens, where the sun actually ripens tomatoes on the vine before the first frost, is gone. I missed out.  For whatever reason – maybe it was procrastination, or maybe for lack of believing that winter would ever end this year – I missed the March 1 deadline in signing up for a plot in the Brighton Community Garden. Yes, I believe that day in March, we were under a blizzard warning.

Gardening up North can be frustrating. The season is very short. Veteran Rochester gardeners warn the uninitiated not to plant anything in the ground before Memorial Day weekend. I received gasps of horror when I informed some that I had planted my tomatoes two weeks ago.  But they had become so leggy and pale looking under my basement grow lights, I really had no choice.

And my flowers? I’m trying not to have a meltdown after the bunnies in my garden CHOMPED off the heads the poppies that I have waited all winter to bloom. At least those red bugs have not attacked my Asiatic lilies. At least not yet.

That perfect garden is just not going to happen. So, this year I am just going to relax and keep it in perspective. I think about the ravaged midwest and how lucky we are in boring, tornado-free upstate New York. I think of the farmers who rely on the land and ideal weather conditions to make their living.

It has been one soggy spring, one of the rainiest in record in Western New York. In fact, in April, Western New York received 5.81 inches. So far, in May: 3.32 inches. Upstate farmers are weeks behind in planting their peas and corn. And the farmers at my East Hill CSA have already warned us that this year’s crops are getting a late start because of the soggy conditions.

This year, I am leaving my garden primarily up to nature, because I think She is the best gardener after all. I will embrace my failures.

The Zinnias that I started from seed in the winter are quite puny and can really use some sun and heat:

This Burpee "raspberry lemonade" zinnia did not make much progress under grow lights. Zinnias need heat to thrive

And tomatoes? These are the ones I planted from seed back in February, they also need some sun and need to dry out:

This tomato plant has a long way to go before it fills its cage

But some plants do well in cold wet weather. Here is a picture of the arugula I started from seed way back in the winter:

Arugula Grows well in cold weather - and the rabbits hate it.

But nature is the best gardener. I call these volunteers.  This year, if it is not a weed, I’m letting it grow. And who cares if they are not in perfectly straight lines. If it is a seedling left over from last year, I’m letting it be and will let it grow:

Like Dill

Dill always comes back from the seeds of last year's plant: no need to replant.

That will go very nice with the cucumbers that will grow on this vine, also a pop-up volunteer:

Cucumber vine - or maybe it's a pumpkin vine/

And as for perennial flowers. If you see one of these growing in your garden, jump for joy. It is not a weed, but the start of a beautiful lupine:

Lupine Seedling

Leave it alone, just where it is, and it may grow up to look just like its mom:

I’m not waiting until Spring: This is what I’m Planting Now

with seed catalogs in the mail, can spring be far off?

Another week of winter and another tease by Mother Nature. This past Friday sent temperatures soared into the high 50’s, reducing the snow to piles of slush.  The birds were chirping, and I took a long walk – my first outdoor walk in almost a month.

My garden re-emerged from under the snow and revealed daffodil shoots peeking up, as if to extend a long finger to winter saying, “curse you winter! Spring is coming whether you want to leave or not!”   

But winter isn’t letting go. The weather will fight with itself for another month before it turns spring for good.

 It’s this time of year when gardeners like me really need to get our fingers dirty in some soil. I need to plant something. I need to see that moment when a new plant breaks through the soil.  After months of unrelenting white, I need to see something green (besides the moldy lemon hiding in the back of my refrigerator).

Hence the garden shows that come to cities around the country this time of year. This includes the Rochester Home and Garden Show March 26 – 27.

I start seeds of flowers vegetables and herbs in my living room. Newly planted seedlings keep warm thanks to the floor vents in my house, which was built in the 1920’s.  As they sprout, I bring the seedlings down to the grow lights in my basement.  These grow lights are visible from my basement window. So, if you are a law enforcement officer trolling the Internet, let me assure you that I grow NOTHING that is not legal. 

So, here is how I start:

I begin with seed pellets.  You can buy these at the big box home improvement stores or seasonal sections in a good grocery store. These pellets will puff up with some warm water. Kids like this step because these flat pellets grow right before their eyes.

Then, I filled the pellets with seedlings of


Even the tiniest basil leaf, if you run your fingers over it, carries that strong, sweet aroma and reminds me that in a few months, these leaves will become the ingredients of a Caprese Salad or Pesto when they grow up.


The tiniest arugula leaf also carries that same zippy, peppery taste of its grown counterpart.

And, for a little color, this year I’m going to plant

Raspberry Lemonade Zinnias.  

Not to mention ‘carnival’ bell peppers. And I feel most obligated to grow a tomato variety developed at Rutgers University.

I’ll be taking pictures of my seedlings as they grow.

There are no tomatoes like Jersey tomatoes

Our first house in Fanwood, New Jersey was on a street called Shady Lane. It was anything but shady. There were very few trees around our 1950’s Cape Cod, the former site of one of the countless farms that were sold to suburban developers.  The one advantage of living in a neighborhood that was once farmland: great soil.

“You have to dig a trench and plant your tomatoes horizontally to encourage the roots and make your plant less leggy,” my mom instructed as I planted my first garden.  My mom was raised in an apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, but knew all there was to know about tomato gardening from her tiny yard in Staten Island. 

So I planted my first tomato plants.  Jersey Big Boys and a few plants of cherry tomatoes. The support cages I surrounded them with were so tall it gave my neighbor, a chain-smoking retired firefighter, chuckle with skepticism.

“You really think they will get that big?”

But they did. Each night after work, I would come home to find new flowers on the plants that continued to grow and stretch inside their cages. Thanks to that soil and constant New Jersey sun.

The sun was merciless that summer. In fact, New Jersey in 1998 was under a severe drought alert and temperatures reached 90 and above. Every night, after my husband and I bathed our kids, I would haul out the bathwater, one bucket at a time, to water my tomatoes.  By the end of the summer, I had baskets of tomatoes to enjoy with my neighbors, who weren’t laughing at my puny tomato plants anymore. I brought in bags of cherry tomatoes to snack on in my office in Manhattan and left some in the break room for my co-workers to enjoy.

Contrast this with my garden in Rochester. My neighborhood: home to 80-year-old towering sun-sucking Sugar Maples. Unlike the loamy beautiful soil of New Jersey,  my Brighton neighborhood is the site of a former brick yard. You guessed it: thick, clay soil.

I love trees.  I have — no had – 10 trees surrounding my property. But with only an average of 165 sunny days in Rochester, and a huge pine tree standing in the way between my vegetable garden and the sun after 3 p.m., I did the unconscionable. I cut down that tree.  I wanted those red tomatoes that badly. Even so, my vegetable garden in Rochester, will never be so kissed by the sun as the ones back in New Jersey. The threat of frost lasts until mid-may. Days of clouds and rain cause blossom rot and blight. Last year, we received so much rain that if my tomato plants could dream, they dreamt of a sunny hillside somewhere in Italy. Or New Jersey.   

Only this summer did I witness what other sun-starved Brighton neighbors did to achieve that perfect, sun-ripened tomato: for $25, they reserved a plot of land in the town’s community garden. On a tract of land that used to be a farm. More on this community garden in a future post.

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