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It’s Pansy Time!

Today, March 31, is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 83.

This is also Wednesday in Holy Week. Some years her birthday fell on Easter Sunday. (Some years my birthday is the Day of Pentecost.)

But today is also the day I planted tomatoes—far earlier than ever before.

The rule of thumb with tomatoes is that the safest time to plant is after the last possibility of frost has passed. Around here, that’s approximately Mother’s Day, the 2nd Sunday in May.

Pansies can be planted as soon as they appear in stores; they like cold weather. So mine are now in. I bought yellow ones this year for my planters on the front porch. I usually mix colors but not this year.

I fantasize that tomorrow the mailman will come by and think, “Well, he’s got his pansies in.” I imagine this every year, because I get such a kick out of planting my annual flowers. I want someone to notice them!

The lady across the street has a nice window box. I used to admire and envy it, until I realized she sticks in plastic flowers and calls it a day. No watering that way, I guess.

While I’m excited about the pansies, I’m really psyched about the tomatoes. They’re my favorite food, and nothing tastes better than a homegrown tomato. The ideal way to eat them is out in the garden with a salt shaker, and juice running down your chin.

I may lose this crop; there’s a reason the experts say to wait. When I bought this house six years ago in May and planted my first tomatoes, my friend Mark came down from Chicago to help with a couple of tasks, and told me he’d lost his tomato plants a few days earlier. Frost got them, of course. “What’s up with that?” he asked.

I was so eager to learn how to grow a tomato that I let my mind get spooked by what happened to his. So for the past five years I’ve faithfully waited until all danger was past.

I have now repealed that law, for several reasons. First, the eight plants I stuck in the ground today cost me all of $2.78. If I have to replace them I won’t go bankrupt, so it’s time I got over my anxiety. Second, last year’s experience was not good. We had a cool, wet summer and the tomatoes took forever to ripen; I didn’t get any till August, and mine were earlier than some of my neighbors’.

Third, my pal Peter visited me in May last year, and helped stake up my plants. I felt terrible about it, because I started later than normal; he’s from Amsterdam, and I would so have liked to be able to feed him some of my own produce. God knows he’s heard me rave about my tomatoes this whole time. But there we were, trying to coax along a few forlorn-looking plants that he wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy unless he stayed all summer. He did get to eat some local sweet corn, and marveled that here in the exotic Midwest, we actually eat it off the cob! He probably included this bizarre factoid when he inflicted his Travels in America slide show on his parents once he got home. “What’s next,” they must have wondered, “do they wear grass skirts?”

The bottom line for me is this. As soon as Murphy’s has plants for sale, buy them and stick them in the ground. I may lose a few but so what; God made more. The gardening industry knows when to put plants on sale for a particular market; doubtless Wal-Mart has elaborate data on when to offer what at all ten gazillion stores.

Since I am going to spend every day this spring and summer checking to see if I’ve got a tomato yet, I want my juicies sooner, not later. (I’m not sophisticated enough to do grow-lights in the basement, the way the hardcore tomato people do. And I can’t afford to build a greenhouse off the kitchen.)

It was 78º today in Chicago; we may have hit 80 here, the ideal temperature for planting. Yes, it will get colder, but I’ll keep my eye peeled for frost warnings and buy a newspaper to cover up my crop. It’s worth the risk.

Tomatoes are one of the best foods a person can eat. Here are some nutrition facts from learninginfo.org.

The tomato not only thrills the taste buds and brightens the dinner table, it also helps fight disease.

A review of 72 different studies showed consistently that the more tomatoes and tomato products people eat, the lower their risks of many different kinds of cancer. The secret may lie in lycopene, the chemical that makes tomatoes red, said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the studies he reviewed, 57 showed that the more tomatoes one ate, the lower the risk of cancer. “The evidence for benefit was strongest for cancers of the prostate, lung, and stomach,” he reported.

Processed tomatoes (e.g. canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, ketchup) contain even more lycopene because cooking breaks down cell walls, releasing and concentrating carotenoids. Eating tomatoes with a small amount of fat enables lycopene to be better absorbed.

Even though eight plants is a lot for one person, there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes. I freeze them, I can them, I give them away; I can even sell my surplus back to Murphy’s. I could start my own farmer’s market!

My chives are coming back; I’ve harvested some already. The oregano is growing, too. Last week I planted onion sets as soon as I saw them at the grocery store. (Then I had to contend with my dog Luke, who naturally assumed that where I get to dig, he gets to dig too.)

My tulips, including some from Peter, are about 8 inches high; the crocuses are in bloom. The lilac bush is leafing out and will bloom in May. A few of the irises have sprouted, but they did very badly last year and I may have to replace them. The daylilies have new shoots. So far I can’t see any activity among the hostas, nor anything from the lilies-of-the-valley I planted last fall under the maple tree. But everything is coming along as it should; God, do I love spring.

And I haven’t even mentioned that the Butler Bulldogs are in the Final Four!

Butler's regional championship last week.

You know what I’m going to be doing Saturday, and it’s not thinking religious thoughts. The Easter Vigil begins at 6pm my time, but Butler tips off against Michigan State at 5:07. I’ll be going to church, all right, but not at Good Shepherd. Mass can wait until Sunday when there isn’t any basketball. I mean, first things first.++

Coach Brad Stevens of Butler.

4 Responses

  1. I had some of your tomatoes, you used them in a dish, same goes for the cherries which were early last year. Or the salad I could pick fresh out of the neighbors garden… as a city person it’s something else to eat of the land so close to home.

  2. Wal-Mart knows plenty but I wouldn´t necessarily trust all their timing cycles (even in the plant department)…remember they´ve committed for those zillions of plants and flats of plants probably a year or more in advance…hardly taking into consideration the floods of Rhode Island or the tornados whipping about…besides, I´m am old merchant and I can easily see that planting early may, in fact, as you mention, require a later duplicate sale…never-the-less it´s so FUN to have a gorgeous garden…I live in the Land of Eternal Spring and we ALWAYS have beautiful blooming flowers to add and subtract into the innermost garden of my earthly delights…I think I need tomatos…thanks for the suggestion, fresh tomatos out of my own garden are surely more savory than the tomatos out of the garden of the lady next door.

    My goodluck runneth over in the produce department…it´s called Central America.

  3. Leonardo, I would think Central America would be a great place to grow tomatoes year-round. Maybe I’ll move! And oh, I can barely imagine the flowers.

    It got up to 83º here today, and Luke and I got some more work done in the yard; raking, weeding, two stumps removed (not big but deep and annoying) in the back garden, plus smoothing out the soil. This will enable me to double the size of my growing area. I want to enclose the larger space with railroad ties, so I opened up the little pass-thru hole in the back seat of my Honda Accord and drove to Watseka 13 miles west in Illinois to see whether Wal-Mart has started up their garden center yet. (I don’t like Wally World but it’s the nearest place to go if I want something besides groceries and hardware.) So far they’re trailing Murphy’s, just mulch, pansies and petunias, not even any “yard art” for sale yet. I need to buy a gnome to replace one my brother got me that was dismembered in a wind storm. I ended up buying some socks to justify the wasted gasoline.

    The odometer on the Accord now reads 33332; how exciting. Car’s five years old and has taken me on four major trips thus far (Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico, North Carolina).

    I cruised past Murphy’s on the way home, and today they got in strawberry plants, cabbage, lettuce and leeks. Temptation! This is my year to start a strawberry patch – but I have more tilling to do first, then add some of my new compost. On Easter Tuesday I’ll visit garden centers in Rensselaer (pop. 5000) on my way home from spiritual direction.

    UPDATE: Some of the hostas up front have stuck their noses out of the ground. I couldn’t see them until I got the raking done in that bed. But last year’s hostas are either dead or dormant. Wake up, guys! You too, lily bulbs, sheesh already.

    Butler takes on Michigan State in less than 48 hours – GO DAWGS! (You too, Luke.)

  4. Enjoy…life is blooming and isn´t anywhere near full bloom.

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