Planting Tomatoes: A Father’s Day Meditation

West Virginia may be “almost heaven,” but it is neither grand or exotic.  We’ve got mountains, but they are not the snow-covered, breath-taking kind.  You don’t need ropes and axes to climb them.  We have no coastline, no surf.  What is heavenly about this place is its hominess.  Someone wrote that although there are no real cities in this state and, far and away, most of the area here is rural, you can never travel very far here without seeing a house.

One of the distinguishing traditions of life here is the planting of tomatoes.  Of course, you can plant tomatoes almost anywhere in the US, with success, if you are careful, but here the practice is almost sacramental.  It’s been handed down to us over generations, from those who came from the coal camps and worked little gardens as a part of their sustenance to people like me who live in quiet, comfortable suburbs, surrounded by decorative trees and trimmed lawn edges.

We are as regular about our tomato planting as we are about mulching the hedges and spreading weed and feed on our lawns.  We do it.  It’s a part of the season.

I had been away from the practice for a few summers.  I went into back-yard gardening in a big way for a while.  My little rectangular plot grew every year and my yield increased accordingly until the year when my overworked soil just gave out.  So, I tilled everything under and sowed grass and forgot about it all for several springs.

But this year – just a few weeks ago, really – a generous and green-thumbed neighbor offered us some tomato plants.  They had, I think, raised these beauties from seed and ended up with more plants than they could find space for in their garden and they had to do something with these left overs.  They were – and still are, mind you – beautiful plants.  The varieties were written on the sides of the cups that held them, promising some reds and some yellows, some big slicers and some smaller salad tomatoes and we could not resist the idea such a delicious array of home-grown tomatoes in August.

We put most of the plants into big urns we bought at the hardware store.  We even bought the soil for the urns.  This is against my religion and contrary to West Virginia tradition.  Even if you live in modern suburbia, you do not purchase dirt from the store.  But here were the plants and they had to be planted and it would have taken hours of work to re-till any part of the old patch, so, I caved.

But after the urns were all filled and planted, four stout, little plants remained.  No sense in throwing these away – these that had been so lovingly nurtured and that promised their own delightful return.  And so I took them and found spots among our flower beds to spade out holes big enough for the plants to mature in.

On my knees in the black dirt, with the little plants in their cups and a two-gallon watering can beside me, I was taken back to my first memories of planting tomatoes with my father, who passed away this winter at age ninety.

]I could not have been more than six or seven years old when he first rounded me up and took me to a spot in our back yard that he had composted for this purpose.  This was a dream for me, of course, being involved in something real, not play.  Something that was going to do something for us.  Something that my father took seriously.  He shoveled out the holes and mixed the loose dirt with coffee grounds he had saved up for the purpose.  “This will loosen the soil,” he said.  “Makes it easier for the roots to grow.  They like the black dirt.” 

I remember how cold the water from the hose felt on my hands then, but the last thing I would have done is complain.  I was doing real work, man’s work, and that was something to be proud of and to hope for more of.

He set the plants deep in the hole and then covered them with soil until only their very tips peeked out of the ground.  “You want to bury as much as you can, even the low branches go under the ground.  You want the plant to have a solid founding and plenty of room to set its roots.”

I think of these scenes, these very early lessons, their practicality, the sensibleness, their humility, and I remember that these were all the emblems of Dad’s life.  He introduced me to the mechanics of so many things – the soil, the hammer and nail, the ball and bat, the timing chain on the first car he bought me.

And so, this earthy sacrament does for me what sacraments are supposed to do.  It reminds me of a great gift I was given and, in such reminding, teaches me even more about the depth and beauty of it than I had ever realized while I had what I had.

He was indeed the most practical of men and the most loving.  And I walk away from the new plants, certain that they are done right and that they will survive and fourish, given his experience and care, just as I have done.  And I find myself repeating those two words that always occur to me when I leave my mother, his wife of 69 years, comfortable and safe in the beautiful home that he built for her:

“Thanks, Dad . . .”

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3 Responses to Planting Tomatoes: A Father’s Day Meditation

  1. Sound familiar. My dad introduced me to soil and plants. Fresh tomatoes are my favorite. I’ll eat them like an apple. Thanks

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