This article first appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI
By Jay Reed
I’ve long been an advocate for locally grown vegetables and fruits. I love my local farmer’s market. I’ve been a member of at least two Community Supported Agriculture groups (CSA’s). But when it comes to hyper-local agricultural production- i.e., my own backyard - there has been far more advocacy than production.
Ten or so years ago I attempted my first container garden. And by “container,” I mean five-gallon buckets from the hardware store, with little holes drilled near the bottom for drainage, because that’s what the article on hardware store bucket gardening suggested. I started with a couple of tomato plants and some bell peppers. And at the end of that season, for all my grand efforts, I maybe got one pepper, a literal handful of cherry tomatoes, and a stack of buckets that couldn’t hold water anymore.
After that I figured I’d try my hand at raising herbs. A friend at the farmer’s market sold a wide variety of seedlings: all I had to do was keep them watered, make sure they had a bit of sunshine, and harvest to my heart’s content. Well, I harvested them just fine. Then the Mississippi sun came in full force and my watering (or lack thereof) couldn’t pass muster. I didn’t give up on the herbs quite as fast as I gave up on the tomatoes, though.
Another summer I tried a cutesy little herb garden kit and got enough leaves for a couple of Caprese salads, then bye-bye, basil. Last summer I had a really good-looking basil plant grown from a flat sponge-looking thing that had seeds embedded in it. I put it in soil, watered it, and it actually worked! I still have an ice tray full of chopped basil in oil in my freezer from that plant. That one got my hopes up. A recipient (or victim) of my eat-grow-local advocacy gave me another full-grown plant, knowing (or wishfully thinking) that I was into that sort of thing and would keep it up - or at least eat more of it than they would. I set it on my back porch and promptly forgot about it. A few weeks later I went out back and found an array of black, shriveled up sticks in a pot; it took me a while to even realize it had once been a thriving basil plant.
Then, last summer, I received a bit of green thumb grace. A friend of my mother’s had started way more tomato plants than he wanted to manage. They were healthy plants (I was not yet involved) in at least a half dozen varieties. He was looking to share a few, so I did my research. Of course, I didn’t look to see which ones were survivors - hindsight is 20/20 - I wanted to see if they were sweet, what size the full-grown fruits would be, and if they’d look cool in an Instagram salad. I ended up with three plants: Mountain Magic, Cherokee Carbon, and Bella Rosa. A good little variety.
I did essentially what I did before: bought new buckets (the old ones had disintegrated due to lack of use), drilled new holes, put a few rocks in the bottom for drainage, and bought soil specifically for container gardens. I transplanted the seedlings. I brought antique tomato cages from my grandfather’s house in Belmont, hoping they would bring some good luck. I even staked them once they had some height. Most importantly, I set two alarms on my phone - before work and after work - reminding me to water the blessed things. Turns out that’s pretty important.
Guess what? I got tomatoes this time. I didn’t have so many that I set up a roadside tailgate stand, but I did have a handful sitting on my counter on a regular basis. And I would have had more if the birds hadn’t enjoyed them as much as I did. But I got tomatoes. And I got them consistently. And I built dishes from them. I fried them green. I made a sandwich. The basil plant was still alive at the time, so I bought mozzarella for one salad, cucumber and feta cheese for another. I popped a few in my mouth straight off the vine. I was thrilled. Then came the heat wave; watering alarms turned into fire alarms.
Apparently one green thumb wasn’t enough; it seems two (or more) are required to grow tomatoes through a Mississippi summer. But like a gambler with just enough wins to prod him into one more bet, I will most definitely be trying my hand at gardening again.