Gigantic pines surround my yard and the mushrooming cap of a pruned oak opens a parasol over the house. With all this shade, I’ve never attempted a vegetable garden. Herbs, yes--parsley, basil and cilantro in window boxes attached to the green wrought-iron rails that surround our deep cellar-hole--they produce as long as the summer is not too damp. A rectangular stone planter filled with thyme, oregano and rosemary hunkers on a raised cement step--a remnant from a doorway eliminated in a long ago renovation--sage and chives emerge in the square patch of garden at its side. But while I envision myself as weeding and fertilizing a vegetable bed, between the granite ledges that surge from our New England landscape and the trees that block the sun, there’s no place to grow veggies.
For the most part, I’ve written it off, except for tomatoes. Most springs I lug faux ceramic pots from the shed, weigh them down with rocks, fill them with a dampened mix of loam and potting soil and plant cherry tomatoes; this year I added Rutgers Heirlooms just for fun. Dragging the pots to our sunniest spot at the corner of the cement paved patio where we eek out a dubious six hours per day, I cross my fingers and hope the season will be dry enough for this luxury. I dream of late August and eating warm fruit off the vine. This year I salivate in anticipation of a new recipe for pasta with tomatoes that calls for slow roasting a pan of fresh picked fruit until the flesh wrinkles and caramelizes sweetly. I imagine panzanella; hunks of dripping tomatoes with red onions, Kalamata olives, basil and day old ciabatta bread, tossed with garlic, red wine vinegar and olive oil, resting on the counter until the flavors meld.
Today, in spite of the rainiest June on record, followed by a marginally improved July; my plants hang with green fruit. The six pots stand together, each bush held up by five-foot stakes. Seedlings that began the season upright are now full of leggy vines that grab for each other like teenage lovers. They become more familiar in the rain; groping, so that like a nun at a Catholic dance, I separate them, tying them at different angles before they become too close.
Yesterday, as I looked out the sliding door to this network of hope and potential marked in heavy fruit and yellow flowers, a fat bee bumped and blundered against a paper-dry blossom, knocking it onto a lifting breeze where for long seconds it traced the air with swirls and eddies until coming to rest on the moss covered patio below.
At that moment, those inbred plants reminded me of my status as a novice writer—that the challenge to improve is like growing tomatoes in the shade. With the plants I have to pinch off aphids, watch for leaf minors, root rot, leaf spot and blight, the same way I have to farm the limitless aspects of an art—by reading interwoven books and articles and blogs on writing, by coaxing query letters out of my brain, by pruning yellow leaves from my drafts and adjusting the stakes after wilting rejection—all required cultivation for a maturing fruit that I’m aching to taste.
Yet, in the end it all comes down to the continuous tilling for the right words--like the bee, circling the stamen, the finite detail, the drilling down, to the nectar, the essence, in order to savor and propagate the image of one wrinkled blossom as it drifts silently down.