Illustration by Victoria Borges
Like most projects around our house, this one started simply: I wanted good, juicy tomatoes for my summer BLTs. Getting my hands on good bacon, bread and lettuce isn’t much of a worry, but I won’t even attempt to assemble that sandwich if I don’t have a thick slice or two from a tomato still warm from the sun.
Meanwhile, my son, Zack, has dreamed since preschool of opening his own pie shop, the kind of joint that sells hand-tossed pizza and hand-crafted pastries. With his plans of a food career, maybe we needed to scale back our weekly farmers’ market visits and see what we could grow ourselves.
Like any young boy, he was all in once I explained that he could play in the dirt. We figured it wouldn’t be too difficult. After all, at least a few of my grandfather’s farming genes had to have passed down to us. That was our first mistake.
That first year, Zack and I scouted our yard for the perfect space, focusing on a downhill corner with great sun and where any extra rainwater meanders. With our niche for raised beds selected, I ordered lumber-and-bracket kits with two squares low to the ground and a shared section twice as tall for plants whose roots dig deeper. Even if we didn’t live in a covenant-protected community, my neighbors didn’t need to worry about us tilling up our entire back lawn.
A landscaper friend promised to deliver a modest load of planting soil to fill those beds, but — once she learned of our urban farming experience — added in manure and other ripe-smelling compost materials. Count that as mistake No. 2. Our puppy was a breed with a stellar nose trained to ferret out earthy truffles, so he jumped in those prepped beds to practice digging.
After raking everything back in place, we were ready to turn this into a real garden. Some vegetables, like baby lettuces, started from seeds, which Zack dropped by handfuls while I aimed to sow perfect rows. Others were seedlings, which gave us a head start and let us include a mishmash of varieties, especially with those tomatoes. I picked beefsteak options for my sandwiches, and heirlooms and grape-sized options in every shade from deep red to purple to golden yellow, for salads.
During those early weeks, as we waited for seeds to germinate and jolts of green to push out of the soil, it was as exciting as gardening can get. We relied on spring rains to water the beds, but by mid-summer, when temperatures hit their hot-and-humid strides, we didn’t much enjoy the hard work of gardening, as we weeded by hand and dragged out hoses and watering cans.
Our last beginner's mistake came when our produce was almost ready. I hadn’t taught Zack to pick only ripe vegetables (although we could fry those green tomatoes). We also lost too many fledgling vegetables to bugs and rabbits, since we kept an organic garden and crossed our fingers.
In our multiple attempts since that first year, we’ve never picked enough ripe vegetables at a time for even one night’s salad. When I do the math, the money spent on attempting to garden far outweighs any profit we’d estimated for our limited harvest. And then — with no shame in my step — I pick up my produce basket and head to the local farmers’ market to see what the professionals have to offer.
Topping my list? Tomatoes, of course.