A Little Gardening Help?

Next time I need gardening help, I'll enlist today's author Mike McGrath. I've never had that flavor of tomatoes before!

I remember the first time someone ever asked me for gardening help. “Who, me?” I thought. I still considered myself a black thumb at that point, so I was excited when this neighbor thought my garden was so pretty that they wanted me to help them set up their vegetable garden, and I wanted to help them create their own little slice of paradise in their backyard.

I arrived at their house early on a Saturday morning, with all of the supplies they had asked for. We got to work right away, but I quickly realized that my neighbor didn’t really know what they were doing. So I was happy to help her out and do a bit more than I planned. It turned out to be a lot more work than either of us expected, but we persevered and finished it up. The woman was so excited for my gardening help when it was done! She couldn’t wait to start planting more vegetables and watching them grow.

It made me really happy to see her so excited about something like that. Gardening can be really rewarding, especially when you’re able to see the fruits of your labor right in front of you. My neighbor was so grateful, and they kept thanking me for my help.

And really, it’s a win-win, because I gained a new friend, and lots of fresh wax beans every summer, which is great because I can’t grow the darned things myself (maybe I do have a black thumb after all!)

In today’s story, “Tomato Heartburn,” author Mike McGrath gets pulled in to “help” with a friend’s garden too, and well, I’ll let you keep reading to find out what happens. It’s pretty funny!

More Gardening Humor

This story comes from our archive that spans over 30 years and includes more than 130 magazine issues of GreenPrints. Pieces like these that turn stories of gardening humor into everyday life lessons always brighten up my day, and I hope this story does for you as well. Enjoy!

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Tomato Heartburn

Tums to the rescue?

By Mike McGrath

It’s hard to imagine the words ‘casual’ and ‘leukemia’ together, but the pastor of my local church was extremely casual early this Spring when he casually told me in a very casual tone of voice that his youngest daughter had leukemia, wanted to grow some of her own food, and could I possibly come by and give them some gardening pointers.

“No!” I yelled as I dropped one of the oversize cans of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup I was dropping off (now literally) to the Food Bank they run out of the church basement. (It was a triple shopping score—the soup was on sale, I had coupons, and I got 40 cents off every gallon of gas up to 25 for buying eight cans. [I could have made $1.80 on the deal if we still had the old minivan with the 25-gallon tank. When one of our little tanks is topped off and we’re fully pointed up (with free gas), I try to sneak the hose over to somebody else’s car {“Pssst; lady—you want gas?” But it is SO embarrassing to get busted by a pimply 16-year-old attendant.}])

Anyway, even if it did cost me only 8 cents, I was not going to let the can get dented, so I stuck my foot out to slow its fall and yelled “No!” again—this time to both the pastor and the can. The can did not listen and caught me right at that little ridge that runs up the front side of your foot; and the pastor—who at least did not fall on my foot—said: “No? You won’t help?”

“No; I won’t ‘help.’ Every time I ‘help’ somebody set up a garden it looks like the ‘after’ picture in a Roundup ad by the end of the month. I’ll do it.”

“Oh, you don’t have to actually do it; I was just hoping you’d tell me what to do.”

I’m seeing a Godzilla disaster movie but with tomatoes being destroyed instead of high-tension lines. “No way. First, this is too important to screw up. Second, it will take me less time to do it than it would to tell you how to do it. And third, you’d plant the tomatoes upside down. You can watch—but not too hard.”

I limp home and tell my wife that I have to assemble some growing supplies to put a garden together for someone. She drops a dish.

You? Your idea of building a garden for somebody else is to visit their house, tell them they don’t have enough sun, and see if they have any good wine.”

“This time I’m on a mission from God!”(I have been waiting to say this for an hour. I want to drive fast through the local speed trap so I can tell the nice ossifer who pulls me over the same thing—maybe add a weird little Doctor Strange move with my hands…(“Don’t bother going for your gun; the bullets have been turned into butterflies, praise the Vishanti.”) {Hey—I didn’t say which God…})

“Does God have anything to do with why you’re limping?”

“Yes. He hit me in the foot with Campbell’s Chicken Soup and told me to grow arugula, tomatoes, and green onions. It’s like the Burning Bush, but with soup.”

Arugula, tomatoes, and green onions were my actual marching orders. “Rowan loves arugula,” I was told. (Hey—nobody’s perfect. And I must have 20 packets of arugula seed because people endlessly send it to me and I don’t grow it. [“Enjoy the arugula seeds; we figured you must be out by now!]) “And she always wanted to grow her own scallions…”

I’m waiting for the third shoe to drop (now there’s an interesting thought for all the parents out there) and finally have to say, “And the tomatoes…?”

The pastor says, “Well, you have to grow tomatoes, don’t you?”

Oh yeah, I forgot. Pennsylvania State law. “License, registration, insurance, and proof of Early Girls, please. And keep your hands where I can see them.”

The place where My Plants Will Not be Allowed to Fail is a townhouse in the middle of a looong block—a row home with an attitude and a garage. In that garage is a child-size toboggan—almost five feet long, about two feet wide, bright purple plastic, and cute as the dickens. (Was Dickens cute? I suspect not.) I explain that it’d make a great planting container, but we’d have to drill drainage holes in it. Not a problem, I’m told; it dates back to when Rowan (now a high school student) and her older sister were tiny and hasn’t been used in a decade…

I also find four fairly big containers; not quite as large as I’d like for tomato plants, but close enough—and they’re here. All my own personal containers are already planted; and I have this strange feeling I have to do this with found material from their garage or God will hit me with Chicken Soup again. And I’m still limping from the first time.

The front of the house has a little deck railing right outside the door that gets full sun. Out back is shady and ruled by their yappy little dog who instantly hates me. I call a friend who is actually handy, and he drills the holes in the toboggan and secures it to the railing much better than I would have. (His connection will last as long as the house. Mine would have collapsed the second day, and I can only hope Yappy Dog would have been underneath.)

I mix up huge batches of peat moss, compost, and perlite at my house and haul them over. I fill the toboggan and seed a row of arugula, a row of dwarf Greek basil (for aromatherapy, and for the basil), and plant a row of already-bearing miniature sweet peppers I started from supermarket pepper seeds way too early (January) because the little red, orange, and yellow peppers are sweet as candy and twice as cute!

That left the green onions, which I have either never grown, grew so long ago I don’t remember, and/or was certain the toboggan wasn’t nearly deep enough to accommodate. I’m not deep, either, but I want to be accommodating, so I sow a nice long line of them right up front and do not so much say a prayer as look up to the sky as if to say, “Let’s not screw this up.” Luckily, cans of soup did not come hurtling down out of the Heavens. And the seeds all sprout, don’t seem to know that they don’t have enough soil to grow in, and are picked and enjoyed all summer long.

That leaves the tomatoes to plant in containers on the front lawn. I had extras (‘stunt tomatoes’) already potted up, so I fill the car with my potting mix, plants and cages, drive over and…

…there are already tomatoes there. Kind of. Four suspiciously thick vines growing in five-gallon buckets that by their heft seemed to be filled with lead shot as opposed to potting soil.

“A parishioner brought them over…”

“Dead Baby Buckets…I can’t believe I go to all this work and you have Dead Baby Buckets in front of my plants…” I mumble.

“Dead Baby…what?!”

I point to the giant image of a diapered baby going for a final swim on the front of each bucket. “Turn that side towards the street so we get the full effect,” I add.

The DBBs are hauled off (yay!), and I proceed to plant my tomatoes in light, compost-enriched potting soil with, of course, a dozen crushed eggshells added to each pot to provide the calcium that wards off blossom end rot.

A month later, I am informed that the tomatoes are turning grotesque on the bottom. I run over and it doesn’t LOOK like blossom end rot; more like one of the blights. But it can’t be one of the blights because there is no cure for the blights, so I say, “It must be blossom end rot.”

“But you said the eggshells would prevent that…”

“Yeah, but I’ve never grown tomatoes in containers this small before (a huge lie; I’ve grown them in African violet pots). Let’s add some more calcium.”

So I go home. In TOTAL blight denial. “Calcium. Calcium…wherefore art thou, calcium?” I get heartburn, go to take a Tums, and look at the label: Calcium Carbonate! I pour about 50 (very brightly colored) Tums into a bucket, fill it a quarter of the way with water, stir it for the better part of a day, go back and slowly pour this psychedelic liquid equally into each container, pull off all of the bad tomatoes, and look accusingly at the sky again.

“Trust in the double secret calcium sauce,” I tell the family. And the next week they harvest their first perfect tomato. After that, no more whatever. Success!

Rowan’s treatments also go well. Towards the end of the summer I go over to replace the faded tomatoes with salad greens for the fall, and the pastor is there. “Great work with the tomatoes,” he says. “They had a flavor we’ve never experienced before…kind of like…like…”

“Some kind of Tropical Fruit?”

”Yes—very tropical!”

”They’re a special one-time-only variety I had,” I lied.

Hey—it was the only flavor of Tums we had in the house!

By Mike McGrath, published originally in 2016-17, in GreenPrints Issue #108. Illustrated by Marilynne Roach

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Did this remind you of a similar story in the garden that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear it. 


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