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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Frost-Proofing to Avoid Tomato Folly

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Here is piece about growing tomatoes. I wrote it in 2002 when I lived in Cheyenne, WY. I read it in public once, but it’s never been in print. Today, the sun hot on my back as I pruned tomatoes in my raised bed in South Dakota, I remembered its relevance.

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On a stony-cold March day when the sky is the color of concrete, I am hunched into my coat, getting into the car, when the first evidence of spring catches my eye. Pale purple buds bubble up from the bare sand beside the driveway.

I drive away humming. The lavender pasqueflower blossoms also shock me into longing for my home in South Dakota, where they are the state flower, but they are also a pledge.

Fragile as silk, the blooms rise repeatedly out of March snowstorms. Their deeply serrated leaves appear only as the blooms crumple and turn to wisps called “prairie smoke,” just as I spot johnny jump-ups and violas glowing under heart-shaped leaves. Each day brings another omen. I can practically taste tomatoes by the time leaves push up from the perennial native plants lining the parkways of the streets cornering on my house. A few birds flicker at the corner of my eye: sparrows or finches with rosy heads feeding on leftover seeds.

Every morning I take my first cup of coffee on a tour of the wildflowers, marking time by the first daffodil, then a blue blossom on the myrtle vines, succeeded by a royal purple grape hyacinth. Throughout April, the days pass slowly: a Shasta daisy, one columbine and then dozens. Each evening, I tour the gardens again with a beer to see if the clematis on the arbor has opened while I worked inside, watching for the sign, the omen.

At last, usually after June 1, the first iris blooms. Much as I enjoy the purple and bronze and copper blossoms, I do not celebrate the iris only for themselves. No; the iris incarnate a particular time: the wise, or experienced, gardener may plant her tomatoes.

During my first few years in Cheyenne, I was tempted to tomato folly several times. My post office stands next to a gardening center; each May day, I had to park a half-block farther away and hike past crowds of buyers choosing from the dwindling supply of tomato plants arranged along the curb.

Growing up on the northern plains taught me not to set tomatoes out before the first of June. But a couple of times I succumbed anyway, reasoning that the heat amassed and reflected by the acres of asphalt and concrete surrounding my house in the center of town might act like a greenhouse, creating a mini-climate. Those strong Early Girl plants looked lovely on the day I dug them into the rich black soil: the pointed leaves showed deeper green where they met the stem, and a blossom or two was already open, gathering sun.

Tamping earth, I chuckled at the inexperienced gardeners who were misled by the pictures of giant Beefmaster tomatoes; they probably own the biggest SUV available, I sneered, and live in a house with too many rooms and too many windows in one of the ugly subdivisions ringing the city.

Carefully, I fitted a tomato cage around each hefty plant, picturing those branches thick as my thumbs and heavy with fruit come August. To protect against cutworms, I raided my recycling bin for yogurt cartons to trim into collars for each stem.

The sun was sinking by that time, and I was sunburned and tired. I’d stand up, massaging my back, and survey the sky. Surely it wouldn’t frost before I had time for the next step: the walls of water that might keep the plants alive even if we had a late frost.

The next day my back and legs ached, and I only smiled at the plants on my way to the post office. The day after that, I laid the drip hoses to each plant, mulching with grass clippings to preserve water.

And then one night when I was hunched over my computer finishing some writing job, the sky cleared and the temperature dropped. In 1993 I managed to kill two sets of tomato plants. After the first frost, about June 6, I tossed the black carcasses into the mulch pile and set out six new plants.

The next week, while I was tending to ranch business in South Dakota, another frost killed the top half of every one. I lopped off the blackened branches, and crowded a few new plants into the fenced garden plot.

Each year since, I wait to plant tomatoes until after the iris bloom, and I always finish the job by adding another layer of frost-proofing. That first year of my reawakening, I collected glass bottles from the recycling barrel, placing them in a ring around each tomato plant, and filling the bottles with water to form a protective, heat-holding barrier. Besides protection, each plant gained an identity: the Single Malt Scotch plant, the Coors plant, the Club Soda plant. I believe the Jack Daniels plant produced the most fruit. Since I found walls of water at a yard sale, I use those, but I miss the eccentric originals.

That evening, I told myself the work was wasted, that surely frost wouldn’t strike in southern Wyoming in the third week of June. When the final frost of the year struck a week later, none of the plants were harmed. I was a little smug, buying herb plants at the nursery. Even little blue-haired ladies who had known better since before I was born were lining up with wagon loads of replacement tomato plants.

A month later, when many gardeners were lamenting the cool and rainy weather, my plants were growing, blooming, setting on tomatoes, aided by the greenhouse effect of the bottles. I looked on them with justifiable pride, knowing I’d provided for their needs, given them everything they required for reasonable growth.

In mid-July, several guests at my fiftieth birthday party, held in our backyard around the garden full of tomato plants, remarked that I'd never get ripe tomatoes this year. I thanked them for their optimism, wondering to myself if they always assume a project will fail when it is half finished. And wondering if they were simply unobservant, or were denying the evidence in the garden.

And yes, we got all the tomatoes we could eat.

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