Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gardeners raise them like babies, eat them like tomatoes

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L ast winter, in preparation for the planting of tomatoes, I spent months carting banana peels and coffee filters out to the compost bin, taking solace that while my novels resisted writing, at least I was making brilliant dirt.

In early spring, I spooned the homemade compost into planters and then went off in search of a few skinny, needy, inexpensive vegetable plants to love and to cherish until death parts us and I consign their depleted corpses to the compost. I do this in full knowledge that one day, the plant world will get its turn to feast on my remains.

Until then, each April I tuck the wee plants in like babies in a crib. I don't name them, but I watch them grow, each differently, as is the nature of things. I take pride in this one's height, in the strength of that one's young stalks, in the texture of their leaves and their bright yellow blossoms. We are a team: I supply nutrients for them and they, in turn, supply nutrients to me.

In my benevolent, omnipotent way, I tend to their needs, propping up a branch, scattering fertilizer, banishing weeds.

I neither threaten nor bully. But I suspect they understand the precariousness of their fates. Their planters are surrounded by dry yellow grass I've abandoned to the drought, and cactus and succulents have replaced their needier brethren around the yard. Beyond, the surrounding hillsides have become heaps of kindling, just itching to burst into flames.

The tomatoes get breakfast in bed, straight from the hose. In exchange, I occasionally pluck their perfect babies from their arms and pop them into my mouth, their bodies sweet, juicy and still warm from the sun.

I hate to think the plants offer their fruits like desperate villagers making a sacrifice to a fickle god, or they aren't really offering them at all but are simply unable to defend them.

But in the end, it is hard to know what they think of me. Try as I might to think like a plant and see things from their point of view, how can I know if I've gotten it right? As I wander the yard of a morning, coffee in hand, nodding to my fig tree, saluting the eggplants, do they see Kindly Old Amy, bringer of water? Do they smirk and make snide comments behind my back? Am I like the boss who believes he's beloved because everyone laughs at his jokes and feigns interest in his grandson's Little League prowess? Or do they tremble and quake, asking one another if this is the day their young will be taken?

It occurs to me as I write these thoughts there are dangers inherent in trying to understand things from the tomato's viewpoint. For one, I am a vegetarian, so too much empathy with my garden could lead to starvation. I also worry my fiction writing has expanded past the reasonable boundaries of keyboard and screen.

Fortunately, my plants don't seem to hold a grudge. Or perhaps they think life at any cost is worth the imperfect trade. Not only do they keep supplying me with their bounty, they also seem to want to re-enlist. Every week, eager volunteer tomato plants spring up from last year's crop as if to say, "I'm back! Let's do it again!"

I have decided to take this as absolution. And a good thing too, because it's lunchtime and I'm in a tomato sandwich kind of mood.

Amy Goldman Koss' latest novel for teens is The Not-So-Great Depression.

--Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 25, 2012 A11

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