Marigolds bloom; wasps sip the dogs’ water; temperatures break records: Nature’s telling me it’s time to prune the tomatoes.
Fifty years as a gardener has taught me to respect nature’s demands. My mouth waters, anticipating the flavor of the tomato each blossom might become– but I am resolute. I whack off a stem carrying a dozen yellow star-shaped blossoms. Inhaling the peppery fragrance, I amputate branches with no green fruit larger than my thumb.
Branches are the plant’s energy transportation corridors. Distance makes the plant work harder to send nutrients to blossoms remote from the main stem. Every inch increases the energy required for the tomato to turn a flower into fruit. Removing the most flowers dangling at the end of spindly stems concentrates the plant’s energy, keeps it centered on ripening larger fruit.
I picture the tomato’s fattest stems as highways, leading to narrower tributary roads, dwindling to dirt and gravel trails where the signs say “Ranchettes for Sale.” Travel down an expressway is eased by the golden arches of commerce. Fast food, fast gas, fast expenses and speedy satisfactions distract us from traffic and noise. But you can’t grow tomatoes on asphalt.
Just as the tomato plant works harder to ripen distant fruit, each mile increases the expense of supporting a country community. We all pay those expenses. Every other citizen, no matter where we live, is taxed by groups living away from the center where energy is produced.
I’ve already eaten three tomatoes, cynically calculating their cost at about eight bucks each. Judicious pruning now will increase my delicious revenues, and may make my investment worthwhile. Gardening success is biting into the sun-warm flesh of an Early Girl as juice runs down my arm.
Planting those tomatoes makes me responsible for understanding the tomato’s natural behavior, and controlling its desire for growth wisely, so it will produce my food. Each cluster of blossoms is bright as a new subdivision, and each subdivision bears in every cell of its being the desire to grow, to become a city. The desire is logical: transportation costs are lower when they are shared; a city accumulates many needs which are cheaper to satisfy if everyone sticks together.
I empathize with the tomato plants, and with the inhabitants of the subdivisions. Yet each blossom uses resources that must support us all. And that is the business of everyone. If we are not all to lose clean air and water and space, we must set our priorities, and act on them.
The late-summer sun bakes my shoulders, but at sunset tendrils of cold air lick my ankles. Sweat runs down my face, but I feel winter massing and muttering beyond the northern horizon. Recalling ancient times, we celebrate the death of the sun king, and hover between hope and fear for the time of cold.
Kneeling as the sharp-smelling branches pile up around me, I come nose to pedipalp with a warrior queen who guards my harvest: Argiope aruntia, the black and yellow orb-weaving spider. Big as my thumb, she creates broad webs with zig-zag bands in the center.
Can I compare the spiders’ prey– flies, grasshoppers, cutworms– to the developers and real estate agents who are unable to understand the negative impacts of growth? Following their own survival instincts, they head for the best forage, the purest country air, the biggest tomato, gobbling resources for their own purposes. Without control they will feed their offspring today by cutting a plant that might feed us all tomorrow. They chew and spit just as I do, but their dark juices can ruin the gardener’s work.
Following their nature, developers are motivated by the desire for expansion, often honestly believing that bigger is better. Ed Abbey called growth “the ideology of the cancer cell,” and meant that the rest of us must keep it in check. So the spider’s instinct to wrap her prey in silk and hang them from her web for future meals is natural, and necessary.
Working delicately around spider webs, I fantasize about a giant orb-weaver to patrol the plains, a Master Gardener to prune unwise growth.
If allowed to follow its instinct, each subdivision will require more resources than it can produce. Water from dwindling reservoirs evaporates on alien lawns and trees; taxpayers struggle to provide for widely-scattered citizens schools, police officers, garbage collection, and fire protection.
We need spiders– laws and lawmakers to be sure the garden feeds us all, not just a few. Nature tries– with wildfires, floods, blizzards, and other natural tools– to control poisonous growth, but She needs help if we are to have real communities. Each of us must be vigilant, wielding our pruning knives– our vigilance and our ability to vote– in our own back yards.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2010
I wrote this piece in 2010 and published it on the blog on my website (www.windbreakhouse.com), but it’s even more true today than it was then.
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