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An inexperienced gardener's folly and the lessons it taught me, the first time I tried growing vegetables

KATE SCHELL - A midsummer monster growing in the night.The first time I tried growing vegetables, I started 25 tomato plants.

My then-housemates and I had just cleared some narrow garden beds around a patio at the place we were renting, and I thought the space should be made useful with edibles, not wasted on merely decorative pansies or posies.

Tomatoes are my favorite. So naturally, I planted a couple dozen. The more, the merrier, as they say. Viva la fruit, right? Seize the dirt!

If you are a gardening novice, as I was then, you may not know this, but that's like five supermarkets' worth of tomatoes. That's Guinness Book of World Records territory. That's as many tomatoes as Scrooge McDuck had gold coins — you could stay up all night counting them. Indeed, you could swim around in them, quacking like a wealthy cartoon oligarch.

By July, I had discovered my folly. I couldn't keep up with the tomatoes any more than Lucy Ricardo could keep up with her conveyer belt of chocolates. I really tried, though. I ate tomato salads, omelets and sandwiches. I took fresh caprese to every dinner party and filled my freezer with homemade pasta sauce. In hindsight, it would have been a good time to learn to can. I never went so far as eating beefy slices sprinkled with sugar, salt and pepper for breakfast, as my German grandparents did, but I came close.

What I couldn't use myself, I dumped on friends, neighbors and coworkers. I dropped Tupperwares full of cherry tomatoes on the free table at the office. And as a proper Port-lander, I left baskets of thick slicers by the sidewalk, like so many worn, tobacco-scented couches on a rainy day.

The plants themselves became untenable, too. I didn't know about pruning. I hadn't learned to use cages or ladders. Thus, in desperation, I tied winding vines — heavier with fruit each day— to the fence, to each other, even to one unlucky tree branch that stretched near enough. Still, they grew taller than me and thicker into each other, forming a terrifying Lovecraftian hedge. The neighbor's evil ivy began twining amongst them, and spiders draped it all with webs both invisible and iridescent.

By September, it was like a scene from Jumanji. I'm lucky a murder monkey never screeched out of the jungle habitat I'd accidentally created. I have never been so relieved for early fall downpours to signal the end of the season, freeing me from my own hubris.

I've learned a lot about gardening since then. These days, I only plant five, maybe six tomatoes (still far too many). Over the years, trial and error have been a steady, impatient tutor. I've slowly filled in the patchy knowledge I picked up as the daughter (and sometimes child-employee) of a landscaper and the granddaughter of first-generation Americans whose impressive alleyway garden filled their kitchen with fresh produce all summer and their pantry with canned goods all winter.

The last two years have only accelerated my passion for plants. The sudden lifestyle changes that many of us experienced in the early pandemic allowed me more free time to pursue my hobbies and more quiet weekends to focus on my yard. In addition, my reduced schedule allowed me to take the Master Gardener program through the WSU Extension Service in my new county.

I've also become more invested in being able to grow some of my own food as we've seen empty shelves pepper grocery store aisles, and I've become more interested in ecology and preserving native habitats as we've witnessed dramatic climate events freeze and scorch our land.

Maybe you're there, too. Maybe you're harvesting your first potato this year — or your thousandth. Maybe you're wondering what can grow on your shady apartment balcony, or you're hoping to rewild the acreage behind your dream home. Maybe you're worried about the so-called insect apocalypse, or you just want to apocalypse the insects infesting your jalapeno plants.

If there's one thing I've figured out since inadvertently unleashing Frankenstein's tomatoes, it's that there's always more to figure out. Each month in this column, I'll share the molehill I've been taught, and the mountain I'm still learning. I hope you'll read along.

And if you're craving a tomato, stop by in July. I'll leave a basketful by the street.

Kate Schell is a designer for Pamplin Media. She lives with her four cats, three koi fish, two dogs, one tortoise, and one human (none of whom like tomatoes). You can contact her at:

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