An old friend back in Alabama was once well-known for growing the best tomatoes in the Birmingham Metro, but it took a lot of work.
For years, she ordered seeds from Hastings every winter. She carefully planted them under her basement grow lights while frost still covered the raised gardens of compost she created above Birmingham’s hard, red soil. She faithfully watered the tiny little vials of loam that protected the seeds, and soon enough green growth began to emerge. By summer, her variety of vines were in the ground growing, and she was always first in the neighborhood to have big red balls of meaty fruit hanging in her weed-less garden, void of any sort of pest.
My old pal certainly had a green thumb, and she never shied away from sharing extra tomatoes with friends and neighbors. She and her husband lived alone, so she didn’t need as many vegetables as she planted every year. She simply enjoyed the process, and with bushels of extra tomatoes week after week, she felt the best thing she could do was share extra tomatoes with others.
Of course, she got loads of compliments and when she did, her friends and neighbors often asked her to reveal her secrets. Now and then she shared a tip or two, but largely she just kept to herself the strategies for growing perfect tomatoes. And they really were perfect. I can almost taste one of her tomato sandwiches with a little salt and a heavy hand of Duke’s mayonnaise. Truly it is the stuff summer dreams are made of.
In fact, her tomatoes were so good, she was eventually nominated to one of the horticulture committees that pepper the Birmingham Metro. It took a fair amount of coaxing over several nomination cycles, but eventually she agreed to serve — if for no other reason than to help her friends and neighbors grow their own perfect tomatoes.
At first, she was a great help. Citizens in her suburban community really benefitted from her advice. She spent time working alongside them to plant seeds and nurture young plants following her own special method. When plants got "leggy" she helped stake and tie the plants according to her particular practices.
She continued to tend her own garden, at first, but still offered her advice and her green thumb to planting peers. They were grateful and complimentary of her selfless work and guidance.
With all the work among friends, she easily climbed the ladder of her horticulture organization. Soon she was president of the group.
By that point, the compliments started sinking in deeper than her sun-kissed skin. All the praise and acknowledgment fed her ego, and while it is true that the world always believed she grew the best tomatoes, she began to believe it, too. As she did, she grew more insistent when offering advice to her tomato-growing friends. Her way was the best, and she was pretty adamant that if her friends were going to grow tomatoes, by golly, they were going to do it her way, or no way at all.
She became something of a nuisance, spending her time making the circuit of friends and neighbors, ensuring they were following her "tried and true" methods. The people who once often asked — no, begged — for tomatoes and advice began to dread her visits, yet nobody had the courage to refuse her advances.
In fact, mandating her practices to all the members of the horticulture group sort of became her new calling. The problem was, her friends and neighbors quit coming to her group’s meetings. They began ignoring her. That didn’t bother her a whole lot, however. She just found new outlets through which she could offer advice. She created online blogs and spent countless hours in front of the computer offering tomato tips to everyone in cyberspace. She worked hard at it. She was intent on making sure the entire world knew how to grow perfect tomatoes.
Yet, while she worked hard at teaching people to grow tomatoes, she stopped working hard at actually growing her own famous tomatoes. Her garden suffered. Where neat rows of tomatoes once proudly stood neatly tied with old pantyhose, thick, thorny weeds took over. The plants that once bore beautiful fruit were now infested with bugs. Here, a tomato rotted on the vine. There, squirrels and gophers created a tomato buffet of the puny survivors of the pest onslaught. Everywhere her perfect masterpiece became a disaster.
In her enormous efforts to force the world to grow tomatoes her way, she cheated on her own once-perfect garden of fruit. As she dedicated herself to insisting friends create gardens conforming with her perspective on the "ideal," she overlooked the problems growing in her own backyard. She spent so much time telling people how to grow their garden, she let hers fall into shambles.
In fact, her garden grew so wild that her once friendly neighbors began to complain. The people who previously longed for her summer tomato treats, soon filed complaints with the city, which, upon one inspection of her property, immediately labeled her pride and joy an offender of the most heinous order.
The city took legal action. There was a public meeting and photos of her yard were published in the newspaper. She was embarrassed and ultimately moved away.
Before this week, I hadn’t thought of my tomato-growing friend in a long time. I don’t know where she is now, but memories of my old friend percolated up out of news stories from the past week. And as I thought about those tasty tomato sandwiches she used to make me, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of gardens our elected officials are growing at their homes.
Michael Willard is the publisher of The Observer News Enterprise.