My favorite Spring garden ritual is starting my tomato seeds. In late March, I fill ten little pots with a mixture of peat and earth-scented compost. Then I press down the spongy stuff and poke a hole in the middle of each pot, loving the feel of the dark fluff, even the bits that stay under my fingernails. Knowing I need exactly ten tomato plants, I always drop two or three little seeds into each hole, adding extra seeds in case some don’t sprout. Any extras that come up will need to be thinned out and tossed.
Oh, but how I dread snipping out the extra starts. Please, I think, no extras. I don’t want to thin them. All the sprouts are newborns, just coming to life and reaching for the sun. I’m their caretaker. I don’t want to choose which ones can live and which ones have to die.
Yes, I know. I rip chickweed and shepherd’s purse out of my garden beds without feeling a bit guilty. Indeed—I admit it—I feel a goodly portion of delight. But that’s their fault! I hadn’t planted them there. They could have grown anywhere but dared to squat in my garden. The tomato seedlings, on the other hand, sprouted just to please me. How could I now grab their little stems—and snip?
This year, something inside me snapped. I just couldn’t do it. So I gently repotted every single sprout. None of them died. Soon I had close to 27 healthy tomato plant starts, 10 to keep and a surplus of 17. It wouldn’t be easy, but I had to find good homes for them all. I felt sure I could do it. I’d found loving homes for orphaned kittens and for gigantic zucchini. Once I even found a good home for a revoltingly ugly old easy chair by putting it outside with a “FREE” sign on it. Admittedly, after three days, no one had taken it. In fact, some sneak put an equally ugly throw pillow on it and drove off before I could catch him to give him his pillow—and my easy chair. But by the fourth day, even it had been taken to a new home.
So, The Great Tomato Orphan Train began. I gave some to the gals in my dentist’s office, some to neighbors, and some to lemonade-selling kids who were willing to try to sell two or three garden starts. But after everyone had what they wanted, two remained. Seemed like an awkward number. If it’d been just one, I would have grudgingly found a way to cram it in. But two? Too many. What now?
Then I remembered Janey. Until recently I had worked part-time as a gardener for several elderly people in town. Janey had been a favorite client; indeed, I thought of her as a friend. I’d become friends with Christa, her grown daughter, as well. She’d call occasionally me from her distant town to ask how I thought her mom was doing.
I loved Janey’s garden. It edged her entire back lawn, about three feet wide in some places, more like five in others. It was a patchwork quilt of plants she’d received from various people. Vegetable plants, including tomatoes, were interspersed with blocks of flowers such as striped red petunias and orange marigolds. My last two tomatoes could surely find a good home there. So I decided to drive by Janey’s the next day to see if she’d like them.
Late the next morning, I drove to Janey’s home and knocked on the door. No answer. Her garage door was always closed, so there was no way for me to know if her car was there or not. I didn’t worry; people don’t answer the door for many good reasons, and Janey wasn’t overly dependent. Christa had never expressed concern that she might not be able to take care of herself. It was a warm day and there was no wind, so I left the two tomato plants in a very visible spot on her front porch where she’d easily see them when she returned home.
I’d intended to call Janey and let her know I was the culprit who’d dropped off the tomato plants and that I’d come get them if she didn’t have room for them. But then I did a few other errands, visited with some other friends, and—you know how it is—forgot to call.
The next day, Christa called me. “Was that you who left two tomato plants on my mom’s porch yesterday?” I smacked my forehead and apologized for making her call me, when it should have been the other way around.
“Oh, no problem!” she said. “Actually, you won’t believe what happened. When you came by, I was out with Mom, taking her to the funeral of one of her lifelong friends.” How sad, I thought, saying goodbye to someone who’d been part of your life for so long.
Christa continued and I almost dropped my phone. “Every Spring,” she said, “except for this one, of course, my mom’s friend would come by and give her exactly two tomato plants. I can’t tell you what a joy it was for Mom, and me, too, to see two tomato plants waiting there for us when we got home.”
“Mom broke into a big smile, picked them up, and held them close—I’d never seen anyone hug a potted plant before. Then she said, ‘Hello, dears. I have just the spots waiting for the two of you.’”
“We both knew that they probably came from you. But we both also felt there was more to it than that. Something special had just happened. Mom’s mood brightened. She felt better the rest of the day.”
After we hung up, I went out to visit the ten siblings of those two tomato plants I’d given away. Soon I’d be putting them into my own garden. And I knew that every time I tended them the rest of the year, I’d remember those two extra ones I’d given Janey—and how happy I was that something stopped me from nipping them when they first sprouted. ❖
This article was published originally in 2022, in GreenPrints Issue #129.