Stephanie's tomatoes

At our apartment on Dubose Avenue in San Francisco, the neighbor above us had a rectangular planter box hanging from her window. We never knew or cared what she was growing, but whenever she watered her plants, we always thought — just for a moment — that it was raining, as the water dripped outside our window.

There were no real gardens in our Frisco neighborhoods, which makes sense. Our first neighborhood was almost all rez-hotels, and our second neighborhood was several blocks of apartment buildings. There was no place to squeeze in lawns or gardens.

When we moved to Kansas City, though, we settled in a neighborhood that was about half apartments and half houses, where gardens weren't uncommon. When we went on walks through the neighborhood, Steph admired some of the neighbors' plants and flowers.

One neighbor in particular was a gardening savant. She lived a few blocks from us, and the entire yard in front of her house was overflowing with gigantic plants. Botany is not my strong suit, so I can't tell you what specific plants they were, but they were really big — tall, and huge in circumference. There was no grass in that lady's lawn, just ginormous colorful blooming things, and plants with leaves bigger than your head.

Walking to work one morning, Steph saw that neighbor running her fingers through the dirt, spraying water on the plants. Steph complimented her delightful garden, and they struck up a conversation that bloomed into a low-level friendship. Martha was her name; she was a nice lady, widowed and retired, with lots of time for her hobby and lots to show for it — a rainforest in her front yard.

Stephanie and Martha eventually had a few cups of coffee and chocolates at a mom-and-pop candy store in the neighborhood, but more often they chatted when we walked past Martha's garden. Getting to know Martha and admiring her jungle, Steph decided that she wanted to plant and grow something herself.

We didn't have a lawn, but our apartment had a back porch that saw plenty of sunlight. The porch, overlooking the parking lot, was big enough for a large potted plant, and Steph decided to grow some tomatoes. She Googled gardening basics, and bought some seeds and a planter that was bigger than a breadbox. She needed soil, but it's surprisingly heavy and we didn't have a car, so she postponed planting for a week. Her parents were coming to visit, and with their rental car and Steph's dad driving, we brought home a couple of sacks of potting soil (fancy dirt) from a shop a mile away.

Stephanie planted her seeds, added some fertilizer, and watered her tiny garden every morning. And as with almost anything she put her mind to, Steph turned out to be a good gardener. Soon, something sprouted, and lickety-split it became a vine. A few little buttons on the vine were our future tomatoes, seven tiny green marbles that grew a little bit bigger day by day.  

Kansas City can be very hot in the summer, frequently above 100°, so on sweltering days Stephanie watered the tomatoes twice, sometimes three times. The tiny tomatoes grew and the vine reached out until it touched the porch's railing, and ouch, the plant was injured by all-day contact with the hot metal. So Steph dragged it farther from the rail, and the tomatoes seemed to recover.

Perhaps a month and a half after planting them, Stephanie's seven tomatoes had grown to golf-ball size, some even bigger, but they were still green. Steph's research, though, had taught her not to wait for the tomatoes to turn red; they're supposed to be picked while they're still mostly green, as they get the first blush of red on the skin. "Any day now," she announced.

The next morning, though, when she went to water the tomatoes, there were only five. The morning after that, only four. We didn't quite know what to think, but surely our neighbors wouldn't swipe Steph's tomatoes would they? There was no lock on the porch, just a short stairway up from the building's back parking lot

Around bedtime that night. Steph was at the kitchen sink getting a glass of water, when she heard a sound from the porch, just a few footsteps away. She stepped to the back door and looked through the screen window. The thief was a racoon, with a tomato in its mouth. The door squeaked, and the animal dropped its half-eaten tomato and ran.

We dragged the planter inside, and the next day we bought a few feet of lightweight fencing, wrapped it around the tomato plant, and put it back on the porch. But the raccoons or maybe other critters still found their way in. By the following morning, the fencing had been uprooted and tossed aside, and the tomatoes had all vanished. After all the time and trouble Stephanie had put into raising those tomatoes, we hadn't tasted even a single bite.

Steph puzzled over how to protect her next crop of fruit from the scavenger raccoons. The fencing hadn't worked, so she considered buying heavier fence materials. Maybe build a cage for the tomatoes, big enough to completely encase the planter? Maybe put fencing around our entire back porch? Maybe buy some racoon traps, and we could have fried racoon and tomatoes for dinner?

In the end, she decided to declare victory. "I wanted to grow some tomatoes," she said, "and I grew some tomatoes. Mission accomplished. It's a lot of work, though, just to feed some feral animals."

We celebrated by having a salad feast for dinner, with lots and lots of tomatoes — store-bought, of course. The planter went to Goodwill, the soil filled a pothole in the parking lot, and the fencing went into the trash, because Kansas City didn't have a recycling program. Growing and then losing the tomatoes had been a happy memory, Steph later said. "About thirty percent frustrating, but 70% funny."