I almost lost my tomatoes due to meddlement because I am a fiddling fool who cannot stop fussing and tweaking and picking at things that do better when left mostly alone. Seeds in soil know how to grow, but I am the gardener who shouts, “Grow!” and then proceeds to burn the seedlings with fertilizer.
I didn’t mean to.
I didn’t know what I was doing.
I didn’t study up.
Gardening is almost purely creative for me, but creativity with a payoff: food. And because it’s a creative, intuitive, somewhat haphazard process–and I want to keep it that way–gardening groups and gardening books fill me with anxiety. They’re too prescriptive, there’s too much information, and I tend to panic that I will do everything wrong, and then, inevitably, I do it wrong because panic creates self-fulfilling prophesies. So, generally, I don’t read them, except for Sandra Perrin’s Organic Gardening in Cold Climates because it’s concise and filled with tips and there’s a whole section about plants that like each other and plants that don’t, which is very funny to me–strawberries and garlic are friends but pumpkins and potatoes are not–otherwise, I wait until something goes wrong, and then I ask the internet what I did.
But sometimes the answer comes to me, as it did this time, in what I’d like to say was a visitation from my mother, but it was probably just a memory combined with gut feeling. Here’s the story: I planted my seeds. They sprouted. I made sure they were well-centered under the grow lights. I watered them. I misted them. And then when they seemed big enough, I followed the directions on the bottle and put an eighth of a teaspoon of fertilizer in four cups of water, and I gave them a little.
Within days, the tomatoes started to raise their leaves skyward, but the kale didn’t, the ground cherries didn’t, and neither did the tomatillos, and because this odd behavior was only apparent in the tomatoes, I figured they might need more fertilizer. So I gave it to them again the following week, and within hours they folded their leaves together like hands in prayer, each minute, each hour, each day, clasping their greenery closer and closer until the ends began to brown.
Two days into the apocalypse, I sat at my desk, writing, but I was distracted by my dying tomatoes. I’ve had my heart set on Betalux, on St. Pierre, on Black Beauty, and Martino’s Romas since I ordered the seeds in December. But it looked like I was going to have to buy plants at the nursery. I’d be doomed to Early Girl and Celebrity, which are fine tomatoes but not what I’d hoped for. Grief-stricken (yes) I let my mind wander through its filmstrips of gardens past, and an image of my mother in her garden began to emerge like a photo in developing solution. And then I felt a sentence run through my mind: maybe they have fertilizer burn.
I wasn’t sure that was a thing, so I looked it up, and found that it is, in fact, a thing. The symptoms matched, and then I wondered why the fertilizer said it was safe to give to seedlings. But there was no time for outrage. My plants were dying for heaven’s sake. So I dispensed with anger–pretty sure it was my fault, anyway–and went to Ace and bought a new bag of soil, then sat on the kitchen floor and carefully repotted each one, watered them well, and endured their inevitable droop. I nearly cried when they righted themselves and seemed like they might actually live. Within a few days, the worst affected, my Martino’s Romas, began to unfurl, and new leaves looked as if they’d survive.
I do not yet know if this story ends with a decent harvest. I should have an answer in August.