If your vegetables are sulking, turning into pudding, coated in flies, or otherwise straying from the centerfold models in Organic Gardening, you can always hit the internet. You’re not necessarily going to get two sides of the internet to line up for you, but that doesn’t bother me. When it comes to gardening, I don’t expect any two gardeners to agree.
That all dates back to the tomato incident of 1977. I was a mere spectator. Two women, both aggressive pacifists, both saturated with sweet earth-mama vibes, both positively radiating well-being, well—they got to discussing a shared plot of tomatoes and, specifically, the watering thereof. Their voices started out dulcet and escalated into fractured sopranos, and it wasn’t clear who, in the strain of competitive serenity, was going to come out on top. All I know is one of them advocated for morning irrigation and the other was adamant that evening was best. No one was budging. At some point I believe tofu was thrown.
Surely there was a time when people in general knew the right answer to questions like these. It was wisdom passed down through the ages through generations of folks who couldn’t just walk ten minutes to the grocery store if things didn’t work out. One would think they had it down. But I wonder.
There are plenty of stories of farmers resisting demonstrably good new techniques with all their might, as though their very ancestors would rise up scandalized from their graves. Habit dies hard. Say you believe you should plant your beans naked at midnight on the first full moon after Hornswoggle or some other Druid feast day. That’s specific enough to be persuasive. But for all we know it might all have originated with someone’s great-great-great-grandmother on one drunken toot and it worked out that year, and now we’re stuck with the bean protocol, even though it’s been hit or miss ever since. It might be the horticultural equivalent of wearing the same unwashed sweatshirt on game day you were wearing when your team took home the trophy.
There’s all sorts of advice. There’s the vaunted Three Sisters method of companion planting, which is genuine Native American lore. Lore, in general, is a vital component of successful gardening. First you plant the corn. Then plant beans around it so they’ll have the corn to climb on, and then pop in some squash to act as a natural mulch and crowd out weeds. It’s a good start, but then you throw in a vanguard of marigolds to annoy the nematodes, surrounded by Brussels sprouts to repel the neighbors, and ring it all with explosives on a tripwire to thwart raccoons. All well and good but by now the raccoon population has learned to interpret airborne raccoon shrapnel as evidence the corn is ripe and currently unprotected.
However, if you do have a good source of lore, you should apply it liberally. An example: it is considered helpful to bury a dead fish under your tomato plants. I’ve found it works just as well with a live one. And if your lore is stale, they’re always making it fresh. For instance, when I Googled blossom end rot—a familiar tomato affliction around here, wherein your tomato looks like it is rising from the grave—I quickly learn that it has to do with calcium uptake and consistent watering. One site suggested “3 Easy Steps to fix blossom end rot,” and included a photo of the proprietor, certifiably Earth Mama material. The first step was to throw out the affected tomatoes. The second was to water with powdered milk. A powdered milk cure has “lore” written all over it. Unfortunately—she goes on to report—she found out that plants can’t actually absorb calcium from powdered milk, but was unwilling to change the advice because (she admitted) then nobody would click on her site.
Well, there’s some consensus that tomatoes should be watered consistently, and in the morning, but I do not always have the New York Times Spelling Bee solved by noon, and frankly if anything in my garden needs to be watered consistently, it had better thrive in November. Me, I like to keep my garden guessing.
But here’s a tip. If you run across an antique aphorism that rhymes and has a nice rhythm to it, that’s a good sign. Sprinkle your plat when the sparrow sings flat and the spurge creeps long on the patio. If you can find it attributed to both Morgan Freeman and Ben Franklin, you can bet the ranch on it. As a combo, those two are loaded with gravitas.
Speaking of which, a handful of gravitas in the tomato hole at planting is said to ward off frivolity.