by Mikel Miller
The tomato plant looked like it needed attention—still in its little plastic container; root bound, spindly with withered leaves, not even twenty inches tall. It had one marble-sized tomato, one pea-sized, and half a dozen tiny yellow blossoms.
She brought it with her when she moved into the apartment next to me. We transplanted it to a big clay pot on the balcony, with potting soil and good drainage, giving it room for roots to take hold in its new home.
“Maybe it’ll like it here,” she said, helping me drag the heavy pot to a spot in the full sun. “If we take good care of it, maybe it’ll bear fruit someday.”
I was cutting off some of the shoots between the branches and the trunk the next day when she interrupted me.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting rid of the suckers,” I said. “They won’t bear fruit, and all they do is suck energy from the rest of the plant.”
“I never heard of that. Are you sure?”
“Yeah. My mom used to do it back on the farm.”
Some leaves were still withered after a couple more days, so I cut off some of the lower branches and trimmed others to get rid of the curled leaves.
“What are you doing now, farm boy?” she asked.
“Pruning,” I said. “It’ll help the healthy branches grow.”
“Your mama teach you that too?”
“No; just figured it out on my own.”
“Well, Mr. Horticulture, my mama’s tomato plants had lots of branches and shoots and leaves, none of them withered. She used Miracle-Gro®. I think I have some for flowers.”
She found a pouch of timed-release Miracle-Gro® in a box of her garden stuff, the kind for potted houseplants. I jammed two of the thimble-sized suppositories into the tomato pot. With water in the morning and water in the afternoon, and sun most of the time, the plant showed signs of new life in a few days. Droopy branches showed strength, with more yellow blossoms. I got two more thimbles from the pouch under the balcony sink.
“How many of those are you plan to use?” she asked, interrupting me.
“As many as it takes,” I said. “It’s like the electric paddles paramedics use to shock a patient’s heart and get it beating again. Stand back, woman.”
“Did you read the instructions?” she asked. “Maybe it says how many to use and how often.”
“Duh, we’re in Mexico—the instructions are in Spanish,” I said, jamming the suppositories into the soil.
Within a couple of weeks, the original marble-size tomato was almost the size of a golf ball. More pea-sized tomatoes appeared on the top two branches, along with more blossoms.
“Some of the leaves are still curled, and the stalk looks weak, like it’s going to fall over,” she said, frowning. “Maybe you should Google tomato plants and see what it needs.”
“Google probably uses teenagers in India—what do they know about tomatoes in Mexico?” I said. “But I’ll get some Miracle-Gro® just for tomatoes, with instructions in English. And a cage to hold it up.”
Home Depot had the right stuff, in English, the kind you mix with water, for $5.28. The only wire cages were four rings tall—another $3.78.
“Don’t you have anything smaller?” I asked the clerk. “This cage is ‘way too big for my plant. Besides, nearly ten bucks to grow a few tomatoes seems expensive.”
“One size fits all,” the clerk said. “Besides, some plants grow big and bushy, four feet tall or more, with lots of tomatoes.”
Chemicals and cage in hand, I returned home and installed the cage in the pot. It was top-heavy and leaned to one side.
“Didn’t they have anything smaller?” she asked. “It’s ‘way too big, especially since you cut off the bottom branches and ripped off the little suckers on the others.”
“Do we have a problem”? I asked. “Seems like you always criticize what I’m doing with the tomato plant, no matter how hard I try. Is something wrong?”
“Nothing wrong with me,” she said. “If anybody has a problem, it’s you, not me.”
I found some wire pliers and cut more than twelve inches off the cage prongs below the bottom ring. The cage didn’t lean as much but was still two rings higher than the plant. A dose of the new chemicals seemed urgent, so I mixed a batch.
Neighbors came for dinner on the weekend, and we sat under an umbrella, sipping drinks at the table on the balcony. It was hard to overlook the scrawny plant nearby.
“What kind of tomato plant is it?” one asked. “I’ve never seen one that looks like topiary, with branches cut back and only a few leaves. Is it going to be all right?”
“I don’t know what kind,” she told them. “It had a lot more branches and leaves when I moved here. He’s trying hard, but I don’t know if it’s going to work out.”
My routine of watering, watching, waiting, and weekly doses of chemicals seemed to pay off. More blossoms appeared. More blossoms became pea tomatoes. More pea tomatoes became marble tomatoes. The plant had seventeen potential tomatoes, counting all stages, but marble size tomatoes didn’t seem to get bigger than golf balls.
“You want to see what a tomato plant is supposed to look like?” she asked about a week later in frustration, leading me to the community garden. A dozen or more tomato plants flourished on one side of the small plot—short bushy plants, lots of leaves, and none of them curled. Some long branches were like vines almost touching the ground.
After another week, our plant had new blossoms and more golf balls. I gave it another dose of chemicals. It grew taller, reaching for the third ring up, with sprawling branches we had to bend and tuck inside the cage. The soil turned dry in the warm summer sun, and some of the leaves had ends that turned brown, so I used coffee grounds to mulch the soil.
“What are you doing?” she asked, seeing me dump the morning grounds a couple of days later. “No wonder the pot and the balcony are crawling with ants—they love coffee grounds.” I got a spoon and dug out as much of the grounds as possible.
“Put some dried bay leaves in there—ants stay away from them sometimes,” she said. “And use a shredded coconut husk for mulch.” I covered the soil with bay leaves, covered them with coconut husk, and poured on a pitcher of water.
“I think one tomato will be ready soon,” I said a week or so later. I pointed to it, almost the size of a racquetball, turning from green to yellow. Over a week or so we watched it turn from yellow to orange, and then to red. After a couple more days, I couldn’t wait any longer, and I wanted to pick it.
“I’m not sure it’s ready,” she said.
We picked it anyway. She opened her mouth wide when I offered her a taste, savoring the meaty fullness and juiciness.
“That was good,” she said. “Is there more?”
We shared several more tomatoes, experimenting by adding a dash of olive oil and a bit of soft cheese topped with fresh basil sprigs. She offered some parting advice before leaving on a two-week trip back home.
“Just wait for the rest of the tomatoes to ripen before you try to pick them. And watch out for tomato worms.”
By the time she returned, one worm had arrived, about an inch long, skinny and bright green, humping its way along a leaf. I captured it and tossed it over the balcony. The Internet was minimal help in identifying the creature; it showed pictures of larger tomato worms, fat and dark green, with little horns on their heads. A few days later we noticed an invasion of tiny white bugs–aphids, maybe, or tiny flies just hatching–all over the undersides of the leaves. Wanting to avoid pesticides, I sprayed them with dishwashing detergent. It didn’t work.
“Maybe there’s something more effective, and still an eco-friendly solution,” she said.
Searching the Internet for eco-this and green-that, I found a few options from the Google guys in whatever country. None of those options were available at Home Depot in Mexico, so I bought the non-eco stuff. It produced results within a day: tiny white carcasses like ash littered the balcony tiles under the plant.
I continued watering the plant, and the plants in the community garden too as a Plan B. It grew beyond the top rung of the metal cage, long branches sticking out the sides, loaded with ripening tomatoes. To keep the cage from tipping over, I had to fasten it to the balcony railing with a bungee cord. More tomatoes grew bigger in early August, shining in the sun on the balcony, big enough for neighbors to notice during walks.
While I was back in the USA for a quick trip, we texted almost daily about nurturing the plant and dealing with more aphids. “I’m trying to fight them off,” she said. “But they just keep coming.”
When I returned after Labor Day, we ate a few more of the red ones, but she was never really sure they were ready to pick.
A month later, she decided to move to another place, with only a few tears about leaving. Just packed up her stuff one afternoon, piled everything into her car, and drove away. I don’t remember if she waved goodbye.
Maybe she was right. Maybe it was me.
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I’m never certain what to say about myself in an author bio. Here it is in less than twenty words: I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, decided in college to become a journalist, and now I’m an “indie” author. (My college English professors would cringe at using three verb tenses in one sentence.)
I also manage book projects at EgretBooks.com, a small independent publisher that specializes in publishing eBooks for out-of-print literary fiction. Two of our projects have won prestigious national awards in the USA from the Independent Book Publishers Association. For both, I was the managing editor from start to finish.
After helping launch EgretBooks.com in Mexico in 2012, I moved from the Baja to Guadalajara–the country’s second-largest metropolitan area–with its European cultural heritage, robust modern economy, and one of the largest book festivals in the world. In 2014, I became an administrator for the Facebook group Mexico Writers, which spotlights books by authors who live and write in Mexico.
As a member of Publishers and Writers San Diego, and the Ajijic Writers’ Group at Lake Chapala, I divide my time between the United States and Mexico.
When I’m not writing, I’m available for hire to help authors with the nitty-gritty of editing and self-publishing books. If you’re interested in help with your book, just send an email to email@example.com.
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photo by Sally Davies