An open letter to my tomato plant

In the age of open letters, I wrotea letter to a plant in my garden, as a way of summing up everything I’ve learnt since I started my food garden journey 10 months ago.

Dear tomato plant

I had such high hopes for you, more than anything I wanted to be able to grow my own tomatoes.

But you were doomed from the start with a beginner gardener like me. Enthusiasm only gets you so far.

Last year in August your seeds were among the first I eagerly planted in a seedling box at the start of my food garden journey.

It was the end of winter and I was rushing to get the garden going to coincide with the start of spring. I placed each one of your seeds carefully in a neat row in a dry, coarse mix of potting soil and compost. I watered you once or twice and then watched each day.

Days passed and there were no signs of life, no small stem with baby green leaves. You were set up for failure in this harsh environment with no opportunity to flourish.

A month later I gave up and emptied the soil and seeds from the box into a patch under a Conifer tree in our small courtyard garden.

I tried again with different seeds in a much finer mix of seedling soil, coconut coir and soil from the garden and watered these a lot more frequently. This method seemed to work.

In the meantime signs of life were starting to show in the courtyard garden bed.

Among the weeds and undergrowth of the conifer tree, seedlings were shooting up, with pointed green leaves.

One Friday morning after fetching my helper she pointed at you and told me I’ve got tomato plants growing. I bent down and took a closer look and there you were, about 20 seedlings growing together in bunches.

I separated you and planted you in old coke bottles and yogurt tubs, feeling good about myself for doing a bit of upcycling. Some of you grew too big for the tubs and again, weren’t watered enough so you dried out quickly.

December and January came quick and I spent the holidays in Joburg and redid our garden beds with my husband. We removed the Conifer, Yucca and the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow trees.

We turned the soil in the beds and prepared them carefully for your new home.

Towards the end of January we were finally ready to plant you in the ground. Those of you that survived had such strong roots. I planted six of you around the courtyard and watched you each grow in different ways.

The one I planted in the planter box against the wall gave us our first tomatoes.

Sweet, juicy and red all the way into the centre – one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.

We unfairly expected more of you even though by planting you in the small box there was no space for your roots to grow.

The two plantsin the main bed flourished, even though you could have had a bit more sun. I watched you grow up to more than a metre tall and waited for the first sign of yellow flowers and then fruit to appear.

But again I set you up to fail. I planted you too close to other plants and didn’t trim the new shoots that grew out on the sides of your stem. I didn’t put a structure in place to help control your growth vertically instead of sideways.

Instead I placed a single stake and cruelly tied your main stem to it, only for it to become a breaking point in the stem when heavy summer rain came.

The others I planted in the ground next to the clivias died after heavy rains forced your stems to break.

I was amazed by how fast and strong your side shoots spread out and found a way to grow through nasturtium leaves and marigold plants around you. Suddenly you were no longer a small baby tomato plant but a fully-fledged adult with arms going all over the place. You even started to shade yourself.

Then the white spots on your leaves started to show. I thought it was because of cold weather and too much shade. I pulled the damaged leaves off and left you alone.

White, powdery mildew on the leaves of the tomato plant

The end of summer came and autumn started. Your fruits were few and delicious but not as much as we’d hoped for.

The white spots on your leaves continued and the beds were a complete mess of tomato plant leaves, nasturtium and marigolds. I couldn’t take the mess any more and decided that it was time to cut you down for winter.

As I started to cut your side stems down I noticed more green tomatoes hidden underneath the leaves, with no chance to ever see the sun.


Hidden green tomatoes

I picked these off to preserve and as I cut you down more I noticed something disturbing close to your base.

If only I’d taken a closer look sooner. I would have seen the white mould on the garden bed floor. Patches of what looked like crusty white paint with orange skin bubbles on the surface. Gross. I removed it immediately.

Who knew that mould could grow in the garden? I certainly didn’t

Now it’s June. In two months it will be a year since I started this food-growing journey.

I don’t have a lot to show for it.

You poor tomato plants are a quarter of the size of what you once were. I will wrap you with some frost cover and hope that you can survive the winter morning cold.

I will build decent structures and put them in place so that when you start to grow again in spring you will have a better chance of not destroying yourself.

There may not have been lot of produce to show for the past ten months of trying to grow food but I have learnt a lot.

And this is all thanks to you, my dear tomato plant.

I still have so much to learn but prepared with what I know now, I can’t wait for spring. I promise to pay closer attention and work hard to help you flourish so that you can bear some delicious fruit again.

Hopefully your chances of survival will be better this time.


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