A start to springtime growing
A harvest date to keep
A time to dream of sowing
A time to kneel and reap.
— Sir Ian Lake-Maspenock, “Verses of Olde Albion”
Winter is terrific — crisp and bracing, with a hushed sanctuary at its center. Nothing else quite like it.
Still, a time comes in February and March when a man starts dreaming of busting out of the sanctuary, breathing the fresh air and digging his hands into overturned loam. The winter coat starts hanging heavy on the shoulders, and the rime on the sidewalk seems grubbier and more cynical than it did in December.
It’s a time when a man’s thoughts turn to only one thing; and that one thing can only be … Burpee.
I imagine my grandfather was already looking forward to the coming year’s garden in February of 1974. Being a thrifty sort, his interest was piqued still further by the prospect of an early-bird discount.
(Looking on the current Burpee.com website, I find no mention of any discount for pre-season orders. Is this a relic of days past? An anachronism? Simply a one-year offer to coax inflation-battered Americans to part with their money? Hmmm.)
As I write this, I cannot for the life of me find a good photo of my grandfather in his garden.
And it’s chapping my arse, because he very much enjoyed gardening. Tomatoes, especially. You could count on my grandfather to have stakes in the ground each year, and to give you an update on the progress of his crop whenever you stopped by.
My parents tell me that he mainly grew flowers, not vegetables, until his heart attack of May 1971. After that he branched out into tomatoes.
At first he grew them with the intention that my grandma would put up a supply of salt-free tomatoes each year for wintertime consumption. By the time I was a teenager, that goal had been pretty much abandoned, and the tomatoes were eaten warm from the vine as a summer treat.
(Let us all pause for a moment, in our various wintry outposts, and imagine the summery sights, sounds and smells as we walk into our backyards, pluck a ripe tomato and walk it back into the kitchen. G’wan, cut yourself a slice. You deserve it. You can even let the seeds run down your chin if you want; no one’s watching. The best things in life are free — or, at least, can be had for the cost of a mail-order seed packet and a little TLC.)
Gardening crossed over and enriched other areas of my grandfather’s life.
Hanging in my parents’ kitchen is a still life, painted by my grandpa, showing a row of tomatoes — his tomatoes — sat on a windowsill to ripen. Green tomatoes may be a well-known Southern specialty, but this batch is a testament to New England frugality: My grandfather got not only a meal but a work of art out of his unripe crop.
And his photography skills, combined with his playful sense of humor, produced several trick photos of “monster” tomatoes whose bulk seemed to verge on breaking the kitchen scale. I still smile to think of them, the same way I imagine my grandfather smiled while lining everything up just right in those pre-Photoshop days.
I can’t say for certain how my grandfather’s 1974 crop turned out. Although it would have been just like him to keep an annual tomato diary, he did not (as far as I know) record the relative success of each year’s plantings.
I do know, though, that by the end of February he was ready to plant as soon as nature allowed — with his 5 percent discount in hand, to boot. And, with sunny 50-degree weather outside, another year’s harvest must have seemed practically close enough to taste.