“Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes.”
Petunias have always been my “go to.”
Every summer, I would have flower boxes or planters bursting with every color of petunia imaginable.
And usually some hanging baskets with petunias creating a lovely, cascading waterfall of color, as well.
I love me some petunias!
Last spring, I was challenged by a friend to a tomato-growing contest.
We’d each start out with six plants, and at the end of the season, we’d see whose plants were bigger and produced the most tomatoes.
Having only grown petunias, and being overall optimistic, I thought to myself, “How hard could it be?”
As it turns out, not so hard at all (that’s what she said!).
Wait a minute. Let me back up.
I’d never heard about the people who tried and tried to grow a tomato plant, only to have the plant basically give them the green thumb — sideways.
And I certainly was clueless as to what it took to grow a tomato plant that actually produced…well, tomatoes.
Gypsum? What the heck is that?
Back to the story…
After the challenge, I’d moved back to my little, rented house in Montana.
The very next weekend, I went to a hardware store about 40 miles away and bought flats of petunias — yes, I said hardware store — a few huge bags of Miracle Gro, some planters and six tomato plants.
Of course, I planted the petunias first.
Leaving the tomato plants in their little black containers outside on my little patio area, to soak up the sun while I figured out what to do with them.
That’s when SHE sauntered across the alley.
My neighbor that lived behind me, across the alley, was out working in her garden, and had come across the alley to say hello and introduce herself.
I liked her from minute one. So did my dogs.
“What are you going to do with those tomato plants?” she asked, as she eyed my already-planted petunia planters…I believe there were five of them, each loaded with petunias, on the little patio.
Immediately, I told her of my tomato-growing challenge, and confessed that I didn’t really know anything about growing vegetables of any kind, especially tomatoes.
“Throw a handful of gypsum in the bottom of the hole when you plant them,” she said. “That’ll give you a head start, and your friend won’t stand a chance.”
She gave me a wink.
Oh, she was awesome!
Looking at her shyly, I asked, “What is gypsum?”
My new friend rolled her eyes, and said, “Come with me.”
We crossed her yard, passing her impressive garden and arrived at her little, white garden shed. She opened the doors and went inside.
In the shed, she was moving buckets around and transferring small, whitish-grayish rocks into another bucket.
When she was finished, she handed me the bucket with the newly-deposited light gray pebbles and repeated, “Throw a handful of this in the bottom of the hole, when you plant the tomatoes.”
I thanked her, and we chatted a little bit more, and she showed me her vegetable garden. She was so proud of it, and she should be.
There were cucumbers, cantaloupe, cabbage, rhubarb, green beans and of course, tomatoes.
Over the next couple of days, I planted the tomatoes.
(Although, one of my other neighbors had to point out to me that I had placed the tomato cages upside down.)
I was completely clueless, but I did remember to throw in the gypsum, before I placed the plants in the holes and covered them with dirt.
Those freakin’ tomatoes took off like GANGBUSTERS!
Originally, I didn’t even know what kind of tomatoes I’d planted.
As it turns out, they were cherry tomato plants — Sunburst and the red kind — whatever those are called.
By the end of the summer, my neighbor and I had become great friends.
We’d sit on her front porch, drink Moscato and talk and laugh, while our dogs roamed her front yard.
She introduced me to her lovely group of friends, and we played cards and had potluck dinners every other week or so.
My neighbor pulled up in the alleyway one Saturday morning at 7:30 and honked her horn.
When I stuck my head out of the door to see who was honking their horn so early, she yelled, “Come on! Let’s go check out the garage sales!”
She was Louise.
I was Thelma.
It was a great summer.
Additionally, those gypsum-tomato plants had grown to be about six feet tall and had produced a couple thousand cherry-sized tomatoes.
That’s no exaggeration.
I won the challenge, hands down. Partly because my friend never even planted any tomatoes, but mostly because my cherry tomato plants were out-of-this-world spectacular.
I got so much satisfaction out of watching them grow…feeding them plant food religiously…watering them twice daily on the super hot days…pruning them back and pinching off the “suckers”…and giving away the tomatoes to anyone who wanted them.
Sure, I still watered and pruned my petunias, and they were gorgeous, as usual.
But a gardener was born.
There is something so satisfying in growing stuff; In actually tending to the plants and willing them grow, big and strong.
Remembering to water them.
Hoping they don’t get demolished by the violent Montana summer storms that spring up out of nowhere and spit hail so big it destroys cars and roofs.
. . . In harvesting the fruits of your labor.
So freakin satisfying!
This summer, I’m not sure if I’ll have the opportunity to grow tomatoes.
I hope I do, but if not, that’s okay, too.
In the meantime, I’ve decided to grow herbs inside this winter to keep myself from going absolutely bonkers.
Investing in a small grow light, I started out germinating seeds, AFTER I called my former neighbor and asked her how the heck a person actually went about germinating seeds.
Her emphasis of using a south window was not wrong — not even a little bit.
She walked me through it, step by step, an lo’ and behold, I have chives and green onions growing in two windows, and a small herb garden of dill, oregano, rosemary, parsley and basil growing in another window.
My point here is that, thanks to my former neighbor, I learned that I am a gardener, and I love it.
Guess what’s listed on my Goals List, in the long-term (1-3 years) section?
You guessed it. Buying a house with a yard big enough to grow a small garden.
It truly is cheaper than therapy, and so very satisfying.
And get to know your neighbors.
You never know how awesome the person living right across the alley is going to be.
I love you, JoAnn.