You Say Tomato, I Say Writing

Of late I have been keeping a low profile on this page.  Moving from one house to another did me in for a time.  I had to have a desk custom made (I’ll have to blog about that in the future), and there have been a myriad of things to take care of in both the new house and old house (which is now in escrow – hallelujah).  There was that trip to Left Coast Crime (and a promised blog that I still haven’t written), and all my reading for the Edgars (another blog that will have to wait for the future).

It’s a good thing I have a patient social media director.  Week after week she’s been asking me for a blog, and I have kept giving her excuses.  My latest excuse is my garden.  While I love my new house, it didn’t come with a garden, and so I have been spending a lot of time trying to remedy that. I think there’s something in my DNA which can’t rest knowing my garden is not in order.  And so I decided to give my media goddess her blog writing about my new garden.  In the past I wrote about tomatoes and writing in a column I wrote for Storytellers Unplugged, and I decided to rework that theme.

Probably the best thing about my former residence was the ground that I lovingly worked for over twenty years.  Let me tell you about that soil:  dark, rich, loamy and fecund.  Over the years it was amended by compost, and nurtured by love.  I had three raised planters, and for five months every year my garden yielded drool-worthy produce.
There were no planters at my new house, and the soil would dull most picks.  I ordered four planters with the dimensions of 8’ x 4’ x 2’.  After that I ordered soil.  No, it wasn’t anything like my old soil, but it’s a start.  Nine cubic yards were delivered.  For those mathematically challenged, suffice to say that is a lot of dirt.  When it arrived said “dirt” stunk like the stables.  From the front driveway to the backyard there are two irregular sets of stairs.  With a rusty old wheelbarrow those nine cubic yards of dirt were moved.  Did I mention my bad back?

Already the herb garden is going great guns.  Yes, I have parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (not to mention mint and chives), but mostly I have basil.  I love pesto.  And I love basil as an accompaniment to my tomatoes.

Did I mention my love of homegrown tomatoes?  Pavlov wouldn’t need to ring a bell to get me to salivate.  All he would need to say is, “Homegrown tomatoes.”  Every year when the tomatoes are running, I am busy making salsa and bruschetta and tomato sauce with flavor that trumpets it’s the ambrosia of the gods.

One year I took a break from eating my tomatoes and entered them in a Taste of San Diego contest.  My tomatoes brought home a second place finish and earned me a $500 gift certificate to Ralph’s Supermarket. Because of my success with tomatoes, people are always asking me, “What’s your secret?” It’s the same question I get when people ask me about writing.

I wish that there was a secret for gardening and writing. No one is born with a green thumb.  By trial and error you learn what works.  It’s the same thing with writing.

A plot starts with a seed of an idea; same with a garden. But unless you have one of Jack’s beanstalk seeds, don’t expect that you can toss said seed into a pile of dirt and shortly thereafter start ascending your stairway to heaven.

Before that seed gets planted in the ground, the garden has to be prepared months earlier. In San Diego I usually grow tomatoes until Thanksgiving. In December I pull out the old plants, and sow rye grass. It’s a perfect cover crop, and it fixes nitrogen in the soil. In March I usually spade the soil over, and in April I sow the seeds for the year’s crop.

When tackling a plot, the pre-writing is important for me. I have the seed, but I need to prepare the garden in my mind. I mull over what’s going to happen; I think about characters; I get excited about possibilities; I nurture the book in my mind. I plan what will grow and where. I think about the best way of working my plot. In a garden some plants work well with one another. The garden is enhanced by the scents and the symbiotic relationships going on. In a book you have to find that balance. Tomatoes work well with basil; what’s going to work for your book?        There are always obstacles in the garden, and it’s the same way with a book. A novel is a series of interruptions, false starts, and wrong turns.  In both gardening and writing you have to give blood, sweat, and tears.  In the one endeavor you contend with blight, weather that doesn’t cooperate, weeds, and vermin.  A garden also has its problems (drum rim shot, please).

Your plant/book usually doesn’t grow as you had planned. It wants to spread out in too many directions. There has to be some wild growth in your plot, but it can’t run amok.

The early results in both enterprises are often disappointing.  Every tomato gardener faces blossom rot.  You second guess yourself on the amount of gypsum and calcium you put in the soil.  As a writer you have to tinker with what goes in the early product so that the end product comes out better. Are you cutting roots, or weeds?  With tomatoes you worry about water: too much is as bad as too little.  I have the same worries about my words.  It’s a balancing act. With my plants I stick my finger an inch down into the soil, testing for the wetness.  I use a different divining rod for my words, but stories are just as delicate a crop.

You do your best – you hope – for a good ending. You work to make it happen.  Sometimes you feel like Job, with everything conspiring against your work and your life. You fight pestilence and personal disasters; every year you think getting a crop was never so hard.

Bullshit is not good in a garden.  It’s a fertilizer that burns.  Bullshit is not good in a book.  It’s a fertilizer good readers recognize.

I talk to my words.  I talk a bit in the garden as well.  I praise the beauty of certain tomatoes.  I caress a full tomato, if not exactly in a Tom Jones kind of way, then still mindful of its pendulous, feminine beauty.  Usually I curse more at the computer screen than I do in the garden.  Literary weeds are more pernicious.  But perhaps I am reflecting with rose (tomato?) colored glasses.

If you work your garden every day, you will get a crop.  Perhaps it won’t be the crop you wanted, and the result won’t be what you hoped, but the secret is to just keep trying.  Some years I have a bounty of tomatoes, and some years a bounty of words.

There is no better time to think about my literary garden than when I am working in my planters.  And though I am no philosopher, of this I am certain:  hope springs eternal when you eat a homegrown tomato.

  • Alan Russell  April 24, 2013