Former Editor of Organic Gardening magazine and current host of NPR’s “You Bet Your Garden!” radio show, Mike McGrath is as close as gardening has to a national celebrity. He’s also a very funny writer, whose unique gardening humor has graced every issue of GreenPrints since the Summer of 1998. That’s over 50 issues and counting!
Here: Enjoy the very first piece he wrote for us, way back in GreenPrints #34!
Hey! Who Threw Tomatoes
at My Car??!!!
One gardener’s report on Spring ’98.
By Mike McGrath
Illustrations by Mary T. Ey
First, I am pleased to announce that I have planted my peas earlier this year than ever before and certainly earlier than anyone in my native Pennsylvania would consider even remotely sane. As always, this is not my fault. I was seduced—and, as I slam these words into my poor defenseless keyboard (if I do have to go to Hades when I become compost I know there will be a legion of abused typewriters and computer keyboards waiting to pay me back for all the sins I inflicted upon them on earth) it looks like I am also about to be abandoned by ‘ol Mother Nature, who herself appears to have been blackjacked and drug into an alley by this ‘El Nino’ guy. . . .
At first, I resisted as best I could. January was easy. Even a fool such as I knows that you can’t (OK—shouldn’t, but really shouldn’t) plant a garden—even lettuce and peas—in January in PA. But she was a tempting month, nonetheless—the hands-down warmest January ever in these parts. And, luckily, I was really busy in February. Still, we were smelling sweet springtime soil every time we went outside; I was even worried that the dwarf crabapple tree in the big raised bed in the middle of the driveway (it makes more sense than it sounds like; it kind of defines an area for us to park around) would blossom and then freeze—like the cherry trees in Washington, D.C. already had (blossomed, not froze [not yet, anyway]).
The spring bulbs were up—their greens sprouting and raising up their leaf mulch like floating plateaus in late January. I thought about covering them with more mulch. I thought about removing the mulch that was already there, as it sure seemed like we had somehow moved south a good two USDA zones. But I eventually did the smartest thing a gardener can do, which, of course if you’re me, is to do nothing at all.
But all was not perfect this mild winter. First, it just seemed wrong to have only had four days of winter—especially when we could still remember a few years back when we literally had more snow than we had room for (the result: a one-car wide ‘driveway’ flanked by twin 18-foot-high snowplow-created towers that the kids christened “Godzilla’s Castle” and played precariously on for hours at a pop). And second, I had come out one morning to find what appeared to be tomatoes or tomato sauce splattered on the back end of both cars parked in the driveway next to the aforementioned crabapple tree (which would have been disposed of years ago, but it just looks so spectacular for a week or so each spring, and it probably does help us line up our parking in its own odd little way).
Well, I was furious! The last time something like this happened was a good seven or eight years ago when we were foolish enough to endorse the wrong school board candidate and, of course, immediately had our house ‘egged’ in time-honored local political response. (When it’s ‘only’ a Presidential election, about 40% of the registered voters go to our neighborhood polling place—but when it’s a School Board Election, the turnout is more like 105%.)
Remembering what that egging did to our house paint (are eggs corrosive or something?), I washed the tomato stuff off the cars—but it was already sticking and hard and a real #@$%^&! to remove. A week later, it happened again! So now I’m thinking about sitting up all night on some upcoming evening to catch the vandals, something I would probably never do, but I am thinking about it. . .
Anyway, the last day of February is a Saturday. This is extremely dangerous in a warm winter. I have already, on the previous week-ends, cleaned up, gone through and organized all my seeds (I have a huge stash from my seven years at Organic Gardening), cleaned up my seed starting areas and supplies, made up a big batch of seed-starting mix, put fresh tubes in my big fluorescent seed-starting lights, and pretty much done everything except clean out the refrigerator (which Hemingway said you have to do before you can write a really good novel; don’t know if he started seeds. . .).
So on this impossibly warm Saturday—at the end of an impossibly warm week—I content myself with starting all my tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broc, etc., and a whole bunch of sunflowers—I’m hoping to stage a real early spectacular sunflower show this year (plus, I got something like 50 packets of real pretty ornamental sunflower seeds, and. . .). But on Super-Sunny Sunday, I just can’t take it no more (or in the words of Popeye: “That’s all I can stands! I can’t stands no more!”)
I grab my seven year old, Max, who has been begging to help me do some work out in the garden, and we go out and plant two trellis (trelli?) worth of snow peas (it is now no longer February by one day—it is March 1—and now I figure I’m at least in the right month for pea planting, so we’re probably not talking grounds for involuntary commitment . . .), mix lettuces in two huge containers that I have filled with nice fresh potting mix, and overseed all the spinach that has survived the winter (quite nicely and with absolutely no help at all from me) with more of the same (spinach, that is—not no help).
We also try my new idea. The people who promote spring bulbs from the Netherlands always send out this super-cool box o’ bulbs in the fall to selected garden writers and such, and I got my beautiful box as always (it’s blue, octagonal, contains four really cool very odd-shaped smaller boxes nested inside, and inside each of those boxes are several bags, each containing a dozen or so bulbs of a specific species—all the way from pretty little croci to huge Narcissesseseseseses. eseses. eses.)
Well, when said box showed up last fall, I remembered that a couple of the front flower beds had been looking a little bulb-poor the past spring, but of course I had completely forgotten exactly where, in exactly which beds (all the foliage was long gone), there were pansies growing over top of where I would need to plant the new bulbs even if I did remember where these ‘holes’ were, and every time I had tried solving this annual problem in the past by using what I laughingly call my ‘memory’ (what was I talking about? Oh yeah. . .) I wound up spearing one (actually more like dozens) of the hundreds of bulbs that were already nicely in place and that had been doing quite well until that trowel arrived to disembowel them thank you very much. . . .
So Max and I went to check if we could plant them in the crabapple tree bed instead. Nope, no room in there for more bulbs. In fact, there was not enough room in there for the bulbs already there. It looked like a Japanese subway car had sprouted at rush hour. And while I’m taking in this somewhat sordid picture of sprouts on top of sprouts on top of sprouts I look over and see that the rear end of one of our cars is covered with what looks like hurled tomatoes or tomato sauce or pizza shakings from a cheeseless pie. And I am burnt up! Even the beautiful songs of all the birds in the crabapple tree overhead can’t calm me down! I am mad! No, I am fightin’ mad! Bring ‘em on! The creeps! The cowards! The swine! The vermin! In the words of the immortal Curly, “I’ll paste ‘em, I’ll pummel ‘em, I’ll moidalize ‘em!!!” Why I oughta—
And then I am wiping tomato-stuff off the edge of my glasses. And then I am looking up just in time to have another splat land dead center in my left lens (the glass lens, not my own personal one-of-a-kind, hard-to-replace one).
And it is then that I realize that no one has been throwing anything at the cars.
Normally, the snow and ice storms—and, I now realize, but honestly never did before, hungry birds—would strip all the faded little shriveling-up crabapples from the tree early in winter. But this year, those ‘leftovers’ have instead hung on and have now fermented—luring birds who like to party hearty to the top of the tree, where they have apparently been getting roaring drunk on nice warm days. Drunk and sloppy.
As I watch, one particularly tipsy birdie lurches and stumbles towards his (or maybe her) next fermented little apple, and I realize that—a good half the time—these inebriated avians probably miss ‘beaking’ their intended target cleanly and instead knock it out of the tree and—splat—onto the edge of one of the cars below.
The mystery of the tossed ‘tomatoes’ (I had wondered—enviously—where people were getting such nice red tomatoes in the middle of winter. . .) is solved!
Teenage vandals? Nope. Sloppy drunks? Yes, but sloppy drunks with wings (now there’s something you don’t see everyday, Chauncey. . .).
Sigh—at least I didn’t sit up all night waiting for the tomato throwers!