Tomato Wars

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Tomato Wars

High noon in the garden of good and evil
By Randy Wayne White

I don't need a newspaper to tell me that life is a predicament. I can look out my back door and suffer the same reminders. Violence, birth, survival, death; throw in dumbness and frustration, too. Out back, I've got a garden. The whole crazy business is right there.

Of late, I have been prosecuting a small war. Hornworms have invaded my tomatoes, and the fighting has been touch and go. They blitz, I raid. I skirmish, they snipe. They are indifferent, I am determined. Maybe the hornworms thought I would stand back meekly and watch. Maybe they just assumed that I was some touchy-feely nineties fop who believed that nature is, naturally, divine and that man, by nature, is an unwelcome outlander, some kind of alien geek.

If so, those little bastards have definitely misread me.

Here's how I discovered the hornworms: I walked out back to do some hoeing and noticed that several of my tomato plants looked as if they had been blasted by a shotgun. That seemed unlikely. Why would anyone want to shoot my garden with a shotgun?

I knelt and saw the hornworms. They were green, nearly as long as my little finger. They had unicorn horns and jaws that resembled old-fashioned ice tongs. At first, I didn't do anything about it. The leaves were actually rather pretty after the hornworms finished with them: lacy and intricate, a kind of snowflake effect. The worms could have the leaves; all I wanted were the tomatoes. Live and let live was my motto. Can you believe I was once so naive?

But then the leaves curled up and the tomatoes scabbed. It was as if the moisture had been sucked out of them. There are few things in gardening more unattractive than a withered green tomato. A withered green tomato looks like illness. A withered green tomato seems to illustrate things unholy.

Many hornworms died unexpectedly that day while being crushed. The battle was joined.

I did something then that I don't normally do: I went to a government office, the local extension agency, and spoke at length with bureaucrats, even though I wasn't threatened with fines or imprisonment if I failed to make an appearance. Isn't it ironic that a garden is supposed to symbolize self-sufficiency but, in fact, forces us into bizarre dependencies?

There I was at the extension agency. There I was waiting in line, reading government bulletins on the wall. There I was asking for free publications, ever mindful that the publications were "provided only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin.''

Fortunately for me, hornworms were not covered under this caveat. The free pamphlets got right down to the nitty-gritty--namely, how to exterminate the vermin. "There are no reliable nonchemical control measures,'' one stated, and then went on at length to describe several poisons that would do the job.

For me, that was a problem. Early in the game, I had bragged to several local aficionados that mine would be an organic garden. The declaration hadn't been volunteered. The aficionados had asked, and I had told them what I believed they wanted to hear. Gardeners tend to be very judgmental people. Don't let those sappy smiles fool you. Dodging their disapproval seemed to be an act of kindness to us all.

Also, I liked the idea of eschewing chemicals. I wouldn't have to drive to the hardware store, I wouldn't have to buy one of those spray tanks, and I wouldn't have to wash my hands before popping open a beer. Organic gardening offered dual advantages: It was the politically correct thing to do, plus it was less work. But now I was stuck. If I started pumping my garden full of poison, the aficionados would find out about it. Gardeners are not only judgmental, they are nosy as hell.

"Prior to planting, the wise gardener assembles a plan for effective pest control," one pamphlet read. Obviously, I was not a wise gardener, but I didn't need to be scolded by some government hack. Weren't the hornworms punishment enough?

"For the eco-sensitive organic gardener," read another, "hornworms can be easily removed by hand and released, unhurt, in other areas."

There--my instincts had been right to begin with. Although where was the fun in releasing the worms unhurt? Where was the justice?

I thought about that for a while. Then I got a bucket and took the pamphlet's advice.

Several days later, a nosy gardening aficionado stopped to chat. "How's your garden?'' she wanted to know. Fine, I told her. My tomatoes were doing much better.

"Not mine,'' she replied. "Something terrible's happened. Mine have been invaded, they're an absolute mess. I've never seen so many hornworms in my life!''

As has been true with so many interesting discoveries throughout my life, my discovery of gardening was accidental. I was a 12-year-old 4-H Club member when the pig I was raising for the fair wandered away from the trough and intersected with a truck. I heard the tires screech and ran out into the twilight to see the driver climbing shakily from his big diesel Peterbilt. "I just hit something!" he called to me. "What'd I just hit?''

My black-and-white Poland China pig was what he had just hit. Whew, some mess.

"Are you sure? You don't have any brothers or sisters?''

I did, but they didn't have black hindquarters and a blunt snout. Nor did they gallop around naked at dusk on a fast country highway.

"Thank the good Lord,'' said the driver. "It looked just like some chubby kid."

The driver could afford to relax. He didn't have a 4-H project due in the fall.

I spent the next couple of days reviewing my options. No way was I going to enter my Arabian mare again. She cribbed constantly, which made her flatulent, and she bit like a dog. I had spent too much time around horses to have anything but contempt for their deviousness. I didn't have time to raise a steer, and a fox had recently eaten most of my banties. If I caught the fox, maybe I could enter it?

No. 4-H didn't sanction fox husbandry.

I planted a last-minute garden by default, planted it next to my mother's garden, which ensured that it would survive because she was a dedicated gardener and would do most of the work. I grew beans and corn and peas, and I didn't enjoy it at all. About the only thing I learned was never, ever plant anything that has to be snapped or shucked or hulled. Too boring, and way too hard on the fingers. Plant only big stuff, vegetables that come off the vine ready to eat.

Worse, I had to show the results of my garden project at the county fair. Lead a 300-pound Poland China through the midway, and even if people don't respect you, they will behave as if they do. But carry a basket of iceberg lettuce, and the carnies will chatter at you like magpies. While my fellow 4-H members strutted around with their pigs and steers on leashes, I hid in the exhibition building with a bunch of old people who smelled of Milorganite and mothballs. Most of them wore those sappy gardener smiles. Some things never change.

When the 4-H judge got to my exhibit, he hesitated before he said, "I'm curious. What motivated a kid like you to plant a garden?''

"Had to, sir,'' I told him. "My hog got mashed by a semi.''

The judge seemed relieved. Yeah, a dead pig, fancy snow peas. It all made sense.

Decades passed, and I never planted another garden. Didn't feel the slightest urge. Then, a year ago, I happened to eat an unusually good avocado. I had found it on a remote island. Since the chances of getting back to the island were slim, I suspended the avocado seed in a glass of water, and a frail sapling grew out of it.

I took the sapling out back, planted it, and...something happened. I'm not sure what. It was as if a door in my brain had creaked open, exposing an unused room, a dusty private place, the gazebo of the mad gardener. The feeling had something to do with getting my hands in dirt; something to do with the roots of the sapling functioning beneath the soil, unseen; something to do with the orderliness of it, of planting a specific tree and receiving a specific fruit in kind.

I became obsessive. I bought the Old Farmer's Almanac, I visited garden-supply shops, I spoke with experts. Because I now live in south Florida, there were all kinds of exotic tropical fruits and vegetables I could grow. And because I had traveled through many of the exotic homelands of those fruits and vegetables, growing them would, in a way, reunite me with the places I had been.

I liked that.

I got to work and staked out my garden.

My weekend cabin is located atop a shell mound on an island off Florida's western coast. The garden is laid out behind the cabin in an earthen plaza that archaeologists have informed me was constructed by the indigenous people who built the shell mound. As I hoe and weed the soil, I commonly find pottery shards that could be a thousand years old, maybe older. The indigenous people on this coast were pot makers and pot breakers. The ground is littered. However, they weren't farmers--although the Europeans who arrived later were. I wasn't the first to till the plaza, but I am its current steward. There are times when the weight of tradition weighs heavily on my shoulders.

Back there in neat rows are, among other things, three varieties of pineapples, 11 varieties of bananas, key limes, atamoya, papayas, a whole bunch of herbs, and okra, too. And, of course, tomatoes.

Sound idyllic? That's what most gardeners--particularly the editors of gardening magazines--would have you believe. It's not.

Let's walk down the mound and take an honest look at what is really going on. Ignore the first couple of rows. Those are herbs.

Beyond them, though, are my favorite plants: the hot peppers. I have habaneros, jalapeños, cayennes, naval chiles, 18 different kinds of peppers in all, grown from seed stock collected around the world. I use the peppers in cooking, I pickle them in vinegar, a neighbor makes a wonderful chutney out of them. It's rare that a visitor doesn't leave with joyful tears in his or her eyes after sampling one of my peppers right off the vine.

So what's the problem? Birds are the problem. Birds have been eating my chiles. They fly down when I'm not looking and then they steal them, simple as that. Before I started a garden, I liked birds. Not anymore. Birds are nothing but thieving scum. I can't say it more plainly. A gardener can only be pushed so far.

You know about the tomatoes, but I've had my problems with the pineapples, too. It's possible, just possible, that they have been infected with mealybugs or red spider mites. To me, the crowns of the plants look a little too yellow to be healthy. It worries me. I fret about it at night. Has that woman with the recent hornworm problem retaliated with the first salvo of what is, in effect, biological warfare?

I wouldn't be surprised. The first symptom of obsession is tunnel vision, and its first casualty is rational thought. Does this woman really believe that her garden is the only one in the world that matters? What an ugly stunt to pull. If she were half the woman she pretends to be, she would confront me man to man. But no, she attacks innocent pineapples instead.

The next two rows are empty. They aren't supposed to be empty, but they are. I planted watermelons there. The watermelons grew up thick and green, then just disappeared. One day they existed, the next day they did not.

Initially, I suspected fire ants. The first axiom of horticulture is that there are way, way too many insects in the world. Fire ants are the worst. They will attack root systems as brutally as they will attack a gardener's bare legs. These little Nazis wait until there are about a thousand on you, and then they all bite at once. Extermination is exactly what they deserve, and I try to do my part. I love the smell of ant poison in the morning.

But fire ants didn't take my watermelons. Possible clues to the truth can be found trailing from the banana patch, right through my peppers: cow tracks. Next door there are cows, and apparently those cows have learned how to open the gate--it's the only explanation that my indifferent neighbor will allow. Every chance they get, his brutes stomp through my garden, splatting their nasty pies.

See? Gardening isn't idyllic. But I keep at it, trying to plant more, trying to learn more from people who are experts in the field.

This isn't easy, either, because expert gardeners aren't exactly social butterflies. Worse, they tend to be political radicals. I don't know why this is true, but it is. Nearby lives an authority on tropical fruits. He is a brilliant man whose years working in Central America and Asia familiarized him with all the exotics I would now like to grow. But his years abroad also left him cold on communism, and sharpened his partisan fears, so conversation with my friend requires a certain delicacy.

"You ever notice,'' he once said to me, "that Bolshevik rhymes with bullshit? Bolshevik...bull-she-it. See?''

"Amazing," I told him. "How insightful! Now about those Persian limes I want to plant...''

An expert on organic gardening also lives nearby. Her partisan worries come from a different wing of the same goofy house. "Meat eaters are going to destroy this planet,'' she once explained. "Do you have any idea how many millions of acres are being laid waste by cows?''

Did I ever. "I don't like cows,'' I told her. "A cow stole my watermelons."

Yes, she said, but sheep and horses were no better.

"Exactly," I said. "Gad, don't get me started on horses!"

A garden mirrors life, and life is just one damn thing after another. I don't need a newspaper to remind me of that. The mad gardener has escaped from the gazebo; I'm receiving updates daily

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!