Touchstone tomatoes

It sometimes seems to me there are ‘totemic’ crops if you aspire to being a ‘proper gardener’. For me, two of the few are potatoes and tomatoes. The trouble of course is they are also those most prone to disease. There has been blight at Branch Hill for ever, since way before we were there. Every year without fail, they fail.

For our first couple years we would nurture tomatoes from seed, worry about them at work if the weather was cold or wet, like they were newborn lambs. We would replant them to the plot, watch the fruit form, take shape and allow ourselves to hope (there is a longer post to be written one day about hope, inherent to our gardening). We would watch as the fruit firmed and took colour. We would cast an anxious eye over the other plots for signs of brown leaf. And of course the blight would invade and lay them low, like cancer, eating away at their soul.

We took to buying strong super-healthy seedlings (somehow the hurt when they sickened wasn’t quite the same). Then I started having a few plants in pots at home. I needed somehow the delicious pleasure of picking sun-ripened, warm fruit. I have even taken salt and olive oil with me while I check for the perfect tomato.

I will skip over the trauma of digging slushed, diseased spuds, their creeping sickness previously hidden from sight. Potatoes feel somehow (I am not sure quite why) more ‘important’ to grow. It’s maybe because they start in winter, their first leaves one of the first signs of spring. But it also may be linked to my memories of digging them with my foster father, to be eaten within the hour.

I am still picking tomatoes from the three pots on the roof. I can see their struggle for warmth and can feel their life-force slow. But today, towards the end of October, we will eat outdoor toms with our supper. I am sure my foster father would approve.

But do you, too, grow crops which feel totemic to you, and why?

17 10 2012

Allan Jenkins

5 thoughts on “Touchstone tomatoes

  1. More gorgeous pics I wish I could eat.
    Yes, adore newly dug potatoes and really sunny-tasting tomatoes, but it’s always the herbs for me. Trying to cook without any fresh greenery feels all wrong.
    The spuds…summer is complete with that sprig of mint….and the toms….a treat to pick a few garlic chives to go with them.

  2. Of course allotments riddled with blight as so many lack knowledge of the disease and how to cope with it and dispose of affected plants correctly. Blighted potatoe haulms thrown onto communal heaps or just left lying around. The stupid ban on bonfires doesn’t help as burning is a part of the horticultural cycle.Article about blight and plotters here:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/9609742/Gardeners-blamed-for-spreading-potato-blight.html
    Also banning greenhouses on plots equally unhelpful as at least with one you have more chance of growing healthy plants. So many ignorant rules in town make severe obstacles to good gardening and healthy food production.
    Agree about the herbs Sparclear, just love potatoes with chervil, my new favourite herb… soft and ferny but survives the winter too.
    Agree with you about the dashing of hope…… or the fear of it! Most of growing is about hope and anticipation, we should all be optimists really, I mostly am.

  3. The Fedco seed catalog this side of the Pond once carried an old engraving of a group of Cossacks dancing around a kale plant. Bending the ear of those who will listen, I tell ’em I have no idea what the future holds but I do know that if our culture, locally, is to be an inherently sustainable one, we will be a Kale Culture. Kale, a totem.

    On that note, I had some sweet news today. One of my ‘apprentices’ is organizing the first annual Fall seedswap in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend.

    http://www.local-matters.org/blog/columbus%E2%80%99s-first-annual-fall-seed-swap-%E2%80%93-what-how-why

    Ohio, it may be, but the connection with plot 29 and the UK avant-gardening crew ain’t too far distant. Read down Elizabeth’s prose to the ‘Seed Ambassadors’ hyperlink and you’ll find a piece we penned for the Brighton Seedy Sunday seedswap, back in February of ’07, when Oregonians Andrew and Sarah (aka the ‘Seed Ambassadors’), were on a seed collecting-and-sharing adventure criss-crossing western and eastern Europe. That expedition not only brought Andrew and Sarah to Allan (I was deeply gratified to see the final photos from the Observer allotment plot revealed genetics out of Oregon, still settling in to England’s green and pleasant land, beautifully) but allowed us, by way of return, among other achievements, to significantly boost our access to some of the finest Brassica oleraceae kale genetics Europe has to offer.

    A very great deal more than a friendly diplomatic gesture, integrating the fabric of life. Three winters ago, we witnessed one of the severest temperature plunges we’ve seen in decades, and where our trad kale varietal favorites hereabouts took a brutal beating: the kale genetics sourced out of Europe on that trip, barely blinked. Thank you Hoj Amager Grunkohl (DK), Madeley (UK), Westphalian (UK), Westland Winter (UK), Westländer Winter (DE), Asparagus Kale (IR, UK), 1,000 Headed kale (DE), Roter Krauskohl (DE), Altmarker Braun (DE), Baltic Red (SE), Blonde Butter of Jalhay (BE), Butterkohl (DE), Nicki’s Cut’N’Come Again (IE), Shetland (UK), Hellerbutter Kohl (CH), Cavolo Nero di Toscana (IT), and Ostfriesische Palm (CH) which we have since been introducing to one another in a quintessentially American melting-pot style.

    Anthropologists tell me that in traditional cultures typified by mutual caring, seed swaps and seed giveaways are seen not only as strengthening seed culture, but as critical to nurturing and rekindling intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic relations. Totemic events for totemic plants.

  4. re: ‘balcony’ and ‘rooftop’ gardening

    had great success last year – and no potato blight – growing one potato per sack.
    You start with the sides of the bag folded down and as you add soil the plant gets earthed up and your bag sides unrolled to make container a bit deeper each week. Doing this in hot weather the sack’s moisture evaporates less. Harvesting is done promptly as soon as the green top stops growing and is very easy, no wasted or bruised potatoes when you just tip the container on its side. I chose to mix home-made garden compost with a bit of pure wood ash. There was not a single trace of blight.

  5. About growing potatoes – I only want to grow what one cannot buy in the supermarket which here in Switzerland, amongst many others obviously, are Danish asparagus spuds. 2011 they were hit by blight, so this year I only grew them in buckets, much along the same lines that Sparclear writes about, and they produced lovely healthy tubers. And it saves space, I don’t really have enough to use for potato growing, but the buckets also deal with that problem, as one can plonk them anywhere really.

    Great to see you’re continuing the blog here, the Guardian is definitely the poorer for not having it any longer.

    Helle – or Xiangbalao

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