Tomato seeds spill to the newsprint. My cat’s ill-timed head-butt is his fourth attempt for attention, but I promise I’ll really play with him tomorrow. Two hours past my usual bedtime, all I’ve done is set up my workspace, so I’ve no time to spare for him.
Xanth jerks his paw out of the bowl, scattering my loamy seed-starter mix to the four corners of the room. I haven’t placed a single seed into its cell, and already I need to vacuum. If I want to unlock the promise of these seeds, I guess I can’t afford not to give Xanth attention to distract him from my project.
I fish through the end table’s drawer, scoring the pink mouse with no tail, no ears, and one eye.
I hurl it across the room. Beneath the fury of Xanth’s leap, my hinged coffee table sways. Springs groan. Water splashes—on me, the newsprint, the seeds.
We play our cat-and-mouse game as I mark each variety with a popsicle stick. I want nothing more than to head to bed, but spring won’t wait upon my say-so to arrive. Focusing on the promise these seeds hold, from handfuls of cherry tomatoes to the German potato leaf tomato I’ll cup in two hands, I dig in.
Each night, I mark my calendar with my plantings, when I expect germination. Each morning, as I brush my teeth, I wander over to my trays. This multi-tasking helps me resist the urge to pick at the translucent nubs arching above the ground. If I second-guess the seed’s genetics, “helping” it come up, I might break it instead. Where’s my harvest then?
I head back to the sink, daydreaming of the first zucchini; the first cucumber, and my crown jewel, the FIRST TOMATO.
Nubs unfold, unveiling their first simple pair of leaves. They look nothing like what the plant will become, but they are the set that gives the plant energy to grow. My dreams multiply with each new set of leaves, turning to jalapeno poppers, fried zucchini, salsa.
When the zucchini and squash near germination, there’s no questioning, guessing, poking, or prodding tender sprouts. Enormous leaves erupt, already showing the ferocity of their vine heritage.
I cart the trays out to the balcony, having promised the plants they’ll enjoy their first sunlight tonight. It’s a tease, really, the rosy evening light filtering through the black walnut leaves. My neighbors might wonder at my hubris, introducing my babies to the wild so soon. But I’ve done this before, investing in this dance of hardening off the plants; schlepping them in and out, in and out, letting them drink in ever more filtered sun, then direct sun, until that weekend they spend an entire day outside, hardened off.
Like Superman, the seedlings respond to the sun. Its energy eclipses the fluorescent lights of their birth. They grow stockier, until they will stand against wind, rain, hail…all of the rigors of the outside, save the deer. The cucumber vines make my mouth water, already smelling like the harvest that is nothing more than the first early flowers. A single leaf is as wide as the tomato branches.
The weight in each tray grows, even as three trays becomes four, five, six, in a never-ending game of transplanting the root-bound ones. I chase the promise of the seeds, investing in this repetitive task of bringing them in daily until the magical overnight that drops no lower than the temperature I want, fifty-five degrees. It would be so much easier to leave my plants outside, to set them in the ground, but they aren’t children who can throw on a coat to ward off the chill. I haven’t nurtured them to give in to impatience now. How would I feel, watching their beautiful leaves dull to grey-green, their branches droop as their tiny leaves curl in reaction?
“Soon,” I promise, “soon, I’ll free your roots.”
When I do, they reward me for resisting the temptation to make my job easier. Tomato plants double in size, triple, their feathery branches spreading out and up. The first yellow flower springs to life, then four, six, twenty…. The butternut squashes exceed my expectation, running between the peppers, the tomatoes, the cucumbers. They so thoroughly spread out, I coax them back into the box one week; the next, I apologize as I mow three leaves into shreds. The first squash appear, peanut in size. I blink, and they’re as big as my hand.
My plants reward me with cucumbers and zucchini, harvests I slice, dice, shred, devour. I make the first cake, and bring it to work. When I can’t keep up, I share the straight vegetables as well. But I’m waiting on my crown jewels, the tomatoes. Only summer will polish them.
With temperatures and humidity twins in the nineties, my glasses steamed up, I wilt. The peppers and tomatoes, on the other hand, burst with promise. Pollinated flowers yield the growing fruit. Pale green for the tomatoes; emerald for the jalapenos, lime green for sweet banana.
The cherry tomatoes tease me, the first turning an orange-pink when they need to be ruby red. The “fireworks” tomatoes will not be ready to light up my Fourth of July, but I will be patient for these dividends. When drought hits, and leaves wilt, I drag the hose around. In another few hours, my no longer thirsty plants stand taller.
Days later, making my rounds in the rain that has finally returned, I brush my dripping bangs from my eyes. Am I… hallucinating? I pluck a red cherry tomato. Pop, into my mouth. Flavor explodes, a sweet with a hint of tart. All that tomato goodness, trapped in a tomato barely bigger than a grape. One after another, I savor them.
This is the return on my investment, those countless hours tending my plants. No store-bought tomato can compare. Even those from the farmers market can’t, for I know when I harvested mine. My variety covers my canning, my marinara, my salsa, my warm-from-the-garden post-workout snack.
From now until the hard frost, my tomatoes will pay me back a hundredfold for my care. And next winter, when I’m staying up late planting the next round of seeds, this is the memory I’ll sink my teeth into.