The Gulf of Mexico oil leak gets nastier by the day. MARC trains have shown a tendency to either miss their stations or to stop in the middle of nowhere. The Orioles are mired in the cellar of the American League East. Yet this summer all is right with my world.
I say this because, a few days ago, I harvested my first homegrown tomatoes.
They were not very big, a handful of cherry tomatoes, Sun Gold and White Currant.
But they were a harbinger of good times. Tomato plants are like rabbits; once they start producing, they have a hard time stopping.
I recognize that in the scale of gardening triumphs, reaping a handful of tiny tomatoes in early July is small stuff. Landing the big trophies of homegrown tomatoes — the Brandywines, the Arkansas Travelers, the Kellogg's Breakfast — is still several weeks away, at least in my garden plot. Right now, these larger tomatoes are teasing me. They show a little skin, green skin mainly. Then hide in the foliage, taking their own sweet time to make their debut.
I toil in what is called a City Farm. It is a community garden, about 70 plots laid out, in a nook of Druid Hill Park. So like it or not, every time I walk through the garden, I can check the progress of my crops with those of my neighbors. This comparative gardening exercise reminds me of my elementary school days, when the teacher would pin the essays of our fourth-grade English class on a bulletin board. I thought my "B" was swell — until I looked around and saw that most of my classmates got an "A."
Sure enough, the momentary high that had come over me as I munched on a few cherry tomatoes dipped considerably when a neighboring gardener informed me that she had already picked real tomatoes — not cherries — a variety called Fourth of July.
Talk about deflation. Nevertheless, after snagging my first tomatoes, even tiny ones, I couldn't help but feel rewarded, that at last I was getting a return on my investment.
I do not mean money. It is an unwritten code among gardeners that you never do the financial math. You never tally all the money you have coughed up for tools, seeds, plants, gasoline and garden accoutrements. If you divide that expenditure by the pounds of goods grown, the resulting number could be a cause for depression.
A guy named William Alexander crunched those numbers a few years ago and wrote a book about the experience. It was called "The $64 Tomato."
The only way the garden calculations can make the least bit of fiscal sense is if you fudge, adding the number of hours you would have spent in a psychiatrist's office ( I use $90 an hour) had you not been digging in the dirt.
There is a rhythm — some might say a cycle of illness — to the tomato growing experience. In April, there is enthusiasm as the seedlings are nursed to their proper height. In May, expectations swell as the young plants are put in the ground. Next comes weeks of impatient peeking with the gardener lifting up leaves, waiting for the dozens of green orbs to redden and turn into something edible. The ripening usually begins in earnest as soon as the gardener goes out of town on vacation.
In late summer, barring attacks by groundhogs, deer, disease, blight or excessive heat, the crop comes in, heavy as a thunderstorm.
On the hottest, most humid day of the year in a sweltering kitchen, mounds of very ripe, almost rotten tomatoes are transformed into tomato sauce. The sweaty gardener turned sauce maker vows that never again will he plant so many tomatoes.
But by the time the next planting season comes around, he thinks not of the sweat and sorrow of August but instead of the pleasure of picking the first tomatoes of the season. Intoxicated by the memory of those primal juicy bites, he, once again, puts far too many plants in the ground.