Lisa Carroll learns about tomatoes and strawberries
I remember as a young girl holding my dad’s hand. It was always warm, but during the summer it would be rough with calluses and cracked, with garden dirt embedded in the lines.
He’d putter in his garden on weekends, staking up young tomato plants with the same precision, ease and confidence he showed elsewhere. I’d squat down beside him, intertwining the garden twine and tomato stalks — reaching the places only little fingers could reach, my dad would say. Along the way, as we attended to each plant’s needs, he shared his gardening secrets, life secrets and time.
We did this summer after summer into my young adulthood, working the land, or filling five-gallon buckets as the case may be, and enjoying our bounty with sun-warmed tomato-and-mayo sandwiches.
A few years back he got sick, and that summer didn’t have the heart or energy to garden. We tried, but it was too much work between doctors’ appointments, his chemo and my distance. I lived an hour away, I worked and I was pregnant.
Time passed. My dad passed as well. Gardening took a back seat to a new baby. And besides, my husband, child and I moved in with my mom for a spell, easing a lot of burdens.
Then we moved to our home in Ellenville. It’s a starter house that we might be in forever. One of the perks was the yard. It has a sun-drenched front yard perfect for a garden. The first summer we started with the meager flower garden already established by the front stoop.
And a cherry tomato plant. Watching the tomato plant take off, watching our Shelby excitedly rip the ripened fruit from the plant and pop it into her mouth, made the place feel like home. It also made my dad part of it.
The next year, after the snows melted and the perennial plants took off, our flower garden took off with tomato plants. By early summer, it seemed like thousands of young tomato plants had sprung up overnight. Not a single one did Tom, me or the girls plant. They seemed to be a magical gift.
I told the girls the plants were from grandpa, and we’d have to take care of them.
That has happened for the past two summers now. The girls, as they’ve grown, have helped me more and more in the garden. Shelby and little sister Sammie tie the stalks to our porch columns…or attempt to do so. They shower the plants with their little watering cans, and what seems to be their most favorite job, picking off the red fruits. Sometimes, the yellow — barely red — ones get in the bowl, too.
This spring, our perennials have started coming up. The flower bed was alive with tulips, hostas and emerging lilies. Our garden box — that we added last year — has defrosted and has offered up its own bit of magic for the girls by way of a returning strawberry plant.
They are super-excited this plant has made a miraculous return. With only a handful of fruit picked last season, I had just about given up on it. I even told the girls, as we were cleaning out the garden last fall, that we should consider planting something else in its place — much to their dismay. The tiny, sweet fruits are by far their most favorite treat.
We had decided to check out what was going on this spring and realized we had never scooped out the old strawberry plant. Shelby pushed back some of the dead, brown leaves. Lo and behold, green shoots were appearing.
Strawberry plants are wild creatures that may take over the garden. While Tom and I envisioned a variety of plants in our garden — tomato, cucumber, beans — we’ve decided to give the garden space to the girls. They can decide what they want to plant.
As summer approaches, I miss my dad more and more. But as the cherry tomatoes take off in the flower bed, and as I spend lazy spring and summer afternoons with my girls, teaching them to care for their tender shoots, sharing secrets, my dad will be with us.