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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Tomatoes and Marigolds

By jim Bishop.

The last 2 years I lived in Austin were in a mobile home in the south part of town. I still have occasional nightmares about returning home only to find that trailer had been towed away. Trailer park living did, however, offer something that dorm rooms and apartments didn't - a place to garden. The trailer backed up to a dry wash area that occasionally flowed and sometimes, during heavy downpours, flooded the low water crossing into the trailer park. The wash had deposited rich black soil interspersed with chunks of limestone. I dug away the weeds from around the carport and the side of the trailer and created flower beds about 3 feet wide. I used the limestone to create an informal edging. Since this was a temporary place, I planted mostly inexpensive annuals, recalling my earlier gardening experiences and grew zinnias and marigolds from seed. I did splurge on a few plants, buying ranunculus tubers for spring and caladium corms for summer. I grew a variegated pink-flowered hibiscus in a pot on the front door landing. I added hanging baskets of angel-wing begonias to the carport. Decades before succulents would be in vogue, planted several large dish planters with rocks and succulents to create small deserts-scapes. I was fascinated by odd looking succulent plants but knew nothing of their names, flowers, or origins in the wild.

Towards the wash, I knocked down and dug out all of the weeds, and laid out a vegetable garden about 20 X 15 feet. To counteract the basicity of the limestone-laced soil, I dug in pine needles from my parent's home in Houston. I mounded the soil into long furrows and lined the troughs with newspaper to prevent weeds and evaporation.

I'm not exactly sure why I planted a vegetable garden--I never much cared for mother's homegrown vegetables. My mother boiled, drained and buttered most everything, so I had no idea what fresh uncooked vegetables tasted like. I ordered hybrid seeds from Burpee with no idea what I would do with the resulting produce, nor no idea how much to plant. In the fall and winter, I grew spinach, radishes, head lettuce, sugar peas, cabbage, onions and carrots. I tried a few of the colorful oak-leaf and lollarosa lettuces that were fairly new introductions...but had no idea what to do with leaf lettuce. Growing up, salad in our house was a wedge of iceberg lettuce with bright orange Wishbone French dressing poured over it. In the spring, summer and early fall, I grew bush green beans, Big Girl tomatoes, spineless okra, several varieties of squash, Burpee's burpless cucumbers, seedless watermelons, and ambrosia cantaloupe.

We ate all that we could in as many ways as we could find. We filled the freezer with frozen spinach and okra gumbo. I gave all my friends and neighbors big overloaded grocery bags of vegetables. Most of my friends were college kids who had no idea what to with the vegetables.

My favorite was the ambrosia cantaloupe. Unlike store-bought, it had a thin skin and was sweet and very juicy. There is nothing else like it on a hot summer morning.

My tomatoes did too well. I planted Better Boy tomatoes having read about them in the local newspaper. They are a disease resistant, indeterminate variety and kept vining and producing until a hard freeze. Since tomatoes don't set fruit when nighttime temperatures stay above 80 degrees…which temperatures do for several months in Austin...this was important. When temperatures cooled in the fall they started producing again with an enormous crop of tomatoes. I gave boxes full to my mother who would try to make catsup and tomato soup (these are the wrong variety). We’d cut the middle slice out of the tomato for a sandwich and throw the ends away. I harvested the remaining tomatoes before a hard freeze and wrapped them individually in newspaper and stored them in coldest part of the trailer. We were still eating last year’s crop when the next spring crop started producing.

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