Thanks for tomatoes

Friday, August 29, 2008

Editor's note: This column originally appeared Aug. 24, 2007.

It's too early for Thanksgiving, but there's no time like the present for giving thanks, especially to all those generous gardeners who have shared the bounty of this year's tomato crop.

In spite of the recent heat wave, the tomatoes keep arriving. My wife and I have been well-provisioned by gardeners who saw fit to plant more tomatoes than they could possibly use. This is the nature of most gardeners. If you are going to put six tomato plants in the ground, why not stick in another six for good measure?

And it is that good measure that has provided our summer of red, juicy bounty.

We are grateful.

It's not that we're too lazy to grow our own tomatoes. We have tried. But my wife swears our 50-year-old house was built atop a toxic-waste dump.

Few things grow well in our yard, despite assurances from our friends that the plants they suggest "will run you over if you don't watch out." We have ignored these so-called invasive plants with abandon, and they have all pretty much fizzled, except for the swaths of ivy that seem to love our clay and would grow, I swear, on asphalt.

Ten years ago I created what we hoped would be our "sun garden" on one corner of our front yard between the towering red oak and the towering elm. The sun pokes through for several hours each morning. We have planted every kind of seed, bulb and plant imaginable. The only ones that have really caught hold are the ivy and self-seeding columbine. The ivy is green year-around, but the columbine only blooms (rather spectacularly) in the spring.

A couple of years ago we decided to add two redbud trees to the "sun garden" to match the pair of dogwoods around on the other corner. The redbuds are doing just fine.

At the back of the "sun garden" are plants that should be flourishing but perform half-heartedly at best. There is one plant that has come up the last four or five years that I start to pull out as a weed and then wonder if it might be that miracle flower that will actually grow in shady clay that no longer gets sun, thanks to the redbuds.

A couple of weeks ago I was passing by the "sun garden" and noticed something unusual. There were about a dozen of the weedy mystery plants, and nearly all of them had what looked like miniature Chinese lanterns hanging from them. I immediately checked the Internet to identify the plants. They are called, appropriately, Chinese lantern plants.

Not only do the plants put out Chinese lanterns, but the exteriors of the little lanterns deteriorate over time into a lacy foil around a bright red seed that looks like a cherry. This is why the plant is also known as a ground cherry.

As disappointed as I have been by our plant-growing experiments, it is exciting to discover that something you planted -- or maybe it blew in from a neighbor's yard -- has found a happy home and is willing to put on something of a surprise show.

And speaking of surprises: The surprise lilies have been beautiful this year, bursting into flower just as most lawns turned to dormant brown.

Surprise lilies are called by a variety of names. They have dense green foliage in the early spring that dies down. Then in the heat of the summer the lilies push up tall, slender bloom stalks that have showy, pinkish blossoms.

My wife's elderly cousin once or twice removed calls these flowers "naked ladies" because the foliage is all gone when they bloom. Only she pronounces it "nekkid ladies." And because we think so much of her, that's what we call them, too.

Poor soil and shade aren't the only foes of flowering plants in our yard. The deer have taken a liking to the begonias in the urns by the front steps, keeping them cropped off despite my generous applications of repellent. Does anyone have a foolproof anti-deer idea that doesn't involve maiming?

R. Joe Sullivan is the editorial-page editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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