I’m kneeling on weeding kneeler in a particularly uncomfortable position by the tomato plants. The weeding kneeler is a pinkish-red rectangle of condensed foam, partially chewed from when I left it out and the puppies got hold of it. To reach the bed I’ve lift the skirts of the bird netting. The lacy mesh bunches around my shoulders making my neck itch and me think of gynaecologists. To reach the tomato plants, the object of the exercise, I have to stretch forward being careful not to lean on the white plastic, piping cross-beam that is supposed to add strength to the bird netting cage but is, in fact, loose and flimsy and prone to collapsing.
My right hand supports my weight. In middle age my back isn’t strong enough (if it ever was) to support me in this strange semi-recumbent position. My left hand holds the kitchen scissors that have been labelled “Garden” in an attempt to protect them from the office supply vortex of my children.
Between the main trunk and the leaf branch a secondary stem shoots upwards. There is debate about whether this pruning is necessary and, in previous seasons, I have not bothered. This year I’ve decide to prune mostly because last year’s drought is breaking and promises a hot, wet summer. I like hot and wet conditions (especially after the hot, hot, hot and dry conditions of the last year) and so does downy mildew. I’ve read that the pruning will allow for more air circulation and reduce the threat. Last year I lost the butternut squash and spaghetti squash to the powdery fungus.
The scissors find the main stem and snake up their way up until they come to the first side shoot. I hesitate. I’m supposed to snip them off and compost the limb. The scissors are open but frozen next to the plant. I feel so brutal and at the same time so foolish to anthropomorphise a tomato plant. But, I reason, the pant is special.
The seeds were smuggled to me wrapped in kitchen towel: the remains of a particularly delicious salad my sister-in-law boasted about on a trip to France. I planted the seeds, still stuck to the brownish stained tissue, in the last days of August in a mix of coco peat and compost. They quickly sprouted and were tended to with more care than I remember bestowing on my infant children way back when. (In my defence children seem to need more than sun and regular watering.) The first pseudo leaves quickly gave way to two jagged edged, proper leaves. I checked on them each morning, smiling and pleased with their performance.
And then I noticed that they weren’t keeping up with the tomatoes of other growers in the region. Daily, I saw pictures on Instagram and Facebook of thickening stems and even the little yellow flowers that precede the fruit. But mine (I call them “Eve’s tomatoes in homage to my sister-in-law and also because I don’t know what variety they really are) stayed small. Not sickly. Not dying back. But also not getting bigger.
I decided that they had outgrown their seed trays and decided to transplant them into the growing bed, even though they were still spindly and small. In the first days they faltered, drooping in the midday heat. I’d surely made a mistake.
When I thought they were doomed I made secret plans to buy new heirloom seeds that I could pass off to Eve. Then they rallied and began pushing out new growth include the side shoots.
Such precious and determined plants surely need protection from the noxious white power of mildew?