Julie Zickefoose is a writer and watercolor painter who lives on an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio. Her latest book is Letters from Eden, a collection of illuminated essays that move through the seasons.
Every time I plod out to the garden, jaw set, to pull up the nasty old green bean plants that have collapsed on the straw, their yellowed leaves riddled by bean beetles, they surprise me. They’ve set the table with new white blossoms, and they’ve made dinner for me again. And so I stay their execution and decide not to replant -- why start over with a puppy when the old dog still has spring in her step?
I pick the prickly yellow beetle larvae off the leaves and toss them over the fence; I keep the plants picked clean, weeded and mulched. They look terrible, but they keep us in beans, and that’s all that matters. It’s practically free, gardening, if you don’t count the hours spent weeding and the bales of straw bought to keep the bindweed down. You plant the seed and nurture it for a while and then stand back and let the burgeoning vegetation do the rest. Come late summer, you take a big plastic tote out each time you visit, there’s that much food flooding back into your kitchen.
For the first time ever, I’ve kept the tomatoes tied up in their cages, and I can move among them without the pop and spurt of fruit under my bare feet. After running and before my morning shower, I pick, dripping with sweat, clammy tomato branches anointing my arms and back. My clothes and skin are sharp with the pungent essence of tomato. I listen to the swelling sizzle of cicadas, dodging their bomber flights through the garden; hear the steady hum of crickets and katydids in the meadow, the sputtering zzzz of bumblebees working the blazing zinnias. I kneel to extract a huge tomato -- the size, shape and purplish color of a human kidney -- from a jumble of fragrant stalks in its cage, working it up through the thick leaves. I heft it in my hand, marveling, then pluck a basil leaf and take a bite out of its smooth purple side.
I grew this tomato from a seed, saved on a paper towel from last summer’s crop. I sit down in the prickly straw to consider this odd and delicious fruit. It’s the size and shape of the pink Anderson beefsteak from which I gathered its seed. But it’s the oddest color of purple, and the flavor is zingier. A smile spreads across my face as I realize that its other parent must be the little Black Krim tomatoes I grew last summer. I‘d found one in a parti-colored basket of heirloom cherries and saved the seed. In my palm, I’m holding a tomato that’s uniquely my own -- a deep maroon delight, heavy of flesh and sparse of seed, with a more complex, nuttier flavor than its pinkish parent. And it’s heavy with fruit, bundles and bundles of it. Why, I could propagate it; name it anything I want; give it to special friends to grow. This is how it happens, I think; this is how brand-new plant varieties come to be, in the happy accidents and the hum and bumble of bees, in a small Ohio garden, a long way from anywhere.