In the garden, rotten vegetables create best of times


Common sense says it is time to say "goodbye" to the vegetable garden. But for now the best I can muster is "catch ya later." Instead of spending days like today pulling up plants and turning over soil, I have been tossing tomatoes and battling pumpkins.

Some of this reluctance to say farewell to the garden is sentiment. I find it comforting that the garden can still be attractive, even when it has obviously passed its prime.

A major attraction of the declining garden is its rotten tomatoes. I have many failings as a father, as my 8- and 12-year-old sons constantly remind me. But at least I can go to my grave knowing I have introduced my kids to the joy of hurling rotten tomatoes.

Throwing a rotten tomato is one of life's surprising pleasures. There is the aesthetic delight of watching the overripe orb take flight, of seeing its seeds shoot out of its ruptured side like sparks from a comet. There is the satisfying "splat," when a rotten tomato lands. And there is the undeniable thrill that comes from doing something "bad." According to all the authorities, you aren't supposed to throw rotten tomatoes.

The fall is high season for soft, leaking and just plain rotten tomatoes. So as the leaves fall, the tomatoes have been flying. They land only in approved landing zones. These are fence posts and the weedy areas close to our plot in the community garden at Druid Hill Park.

But the flying tomatoes, can never, repeat never, land on or near a person. Even your brother.

The pumpkins have also been a source of garden entertainment. Pumpkin vines know no boundaries. They grow faster than a teen-ager and are about as unruly. They hang around after just about every thing else in the garden has died.

We grew a lot of pumpkins, mostly by accident. The original plant was a leftover from my son's second-grade science class. Last June, when school let out, the 8-year-old proudly carried home one of the pumpkin plants his class had grown from seeds. We planted it in the garden, somewhere.

Good gardeners draw a diagram, showing what they have planted where. It keeps order in the garden. Next year, I am

going to do that. This year, I tried to keep track of everything in my head. Things were OK until the pumpkin started spreading out. When my fading memory was matched against the fast-moving vines, the pumpkins were the clear victors.

By late summer, the pumpkin vines ruled. They had choked out the cucumbers, were threatening the tomatoes and were

terrorizing vegetables in neighboring gardens.

I attempted to discipline these rogue pumpkins in the same way I handle my misbehaving kids. I yanked them back into line. The pumpkins responded like my kids. They straightened out, for about five minutes.

Most of the pumpkins were about the size of softballs. But one was a super achiever. It grew and grew. For weeks, the 8-year-old and I watched and watered the great orb. And then one Sunday morning when we arrived at the garden ready to pick it, it was gone. A pumpkin-napping.

My son and I thought the giant pumpkin had been nabbed by a petty criminal who was going to sell it for quick cash. But it turned out that the big pumpkin had been picked by Ben, a 5-year-old, and his parents. They had figured the pumpkin was theirs, which it probably was.

The confusion stemmed from the fact that the pumpkin grew in an area of the garden my son and I had shared with Ben and his family. During the summer, our two families visited the garden at different times. So we rarely saw each other.

All along, each boy in each family figured the big pumpkin belonged to him.

So, now, to solve the custody problem, the parents -- in consultation with the kids -- worked out pumpkin visitation rights. First, the big pumpkin stayed with Ben, who took it to his school. There it impressed the kindergarten class and reportedly wowed even a few passing, worldly eighth-graders.

Next, Ben's dad and I met in the parking lot and exchanged the goods. I took the pumpkin home. The plan is to get the pumpkin back to my son's science class, where it was born, or at least where we think it was born.

After that, the agenda is vague. But pumpkins, like tomatoes, eventually rot. And when that day comes, I can think of no better way to say goodbye to the garden than to hold a gigantic pumpkin toss.

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