In the Garden with Felder Rushing


It’s legal to gamble in the garden, which is good because I just threw money, effort, and hope at some tomato plants.  

Yeah, though the horticulturist in me said hold off, it’s early and we have until August to plant for a full fall harvest, my inner gardener couldn’t help getting started. But then for years I wore a lapel pin that only half-jokingly proclaimed “Take my advice - I’m not using it.”

I tried avoidance techniques like taking long walks to admire spring flowering trees and watch neighbors mow their spring meadows. But I always back in my little raised bed garden, digging the dirt, savoring the petrichor - that sweet odor released from moist earth. I did whatever I could to put off actually planting summer vegs, herbs, and flowers. 

Besides, I already have cool-season English peas climbing branchy bamboo stakes, and double rows of broccoli and cauliflower (the latter for roasting and dipping like chicken wings). But there’s room between those plants, and the warm soil is so alluring…

Being more of a chilehead than ‘mater-master, I usually plant eight or ten types of those colorful nutrient- and vitamin-dense berries, even the uber-hot Carolina Reaper, literally too hot to handle, but growing them is such a macho thing. I try to harvest enough peppers to freeze for when they hit a buck and a half apiece in the store, or dry them into seasoning flakes. 

But - dare I admit this - I fall short of the pinnacle of gardendom; in spite of being raised by a dad who grew bushels of them in just plain Delta topsoil and decades of working professionally with tomato growers, I can’t grow decent tomatoes.

Tried it all. Planted by the moon in good garden dirt, in raised bed blended dirt and compost, in big pots painted red for encouragement. Planted deep so they root along buried stems, staked and trussed-up vine-types and caged bush-types. Pinched out small suckers to leave just two or three strong stems, mulched with everything from bark to pine straw, watered deeply but not too often. 

Fertilized with both commercial and organic nutrients and borderline-gimmicky Epsom salts, sprayed whiteflies and aphids, thumped big stinkbugs, plucked mini-dragon hornworms. Fought the various blights that cause plants to “fire up” with withered brown leaves, and prevented blossom-end rot with extra calcium.   

Still, knowing I’ll likely fail, I give it a go because they give me hope. Occasionally I get a few fruits before they peter out or crack, or squirrels beat me to them, and I do surprisingly well with July transplants that produce better in Autumn’s coolness. 

I’ve even Sharpied smiley faces on green ones, in case that’s as good as they ever get.

By the way, just as the “real mayo or Miracle Whip” debate will never be settled satisfactorily, no two gardeners can agree on the best variety to grow. Some like ‘em sweet, or with an acidic bite. We grow big juicy slicers, firm-fleshed soupers, and mouth-popping cheery types. There’s a litany of favorite disease-resistant hybrids and exotic heirlooms; do an online search for Seed Savers Exchange or Baker Creek, and you’ll dehydrate from salivating over just the photos and descriptions of what’s available from seed.  

Or just set out whatever varieties your locally-owned garden center folks carry based on what your neighbors come back asking for year after year. 

They all grow about the same, given decent soil, sunshine, nutrients, staking or caging to keep them from sprawling, and water. And luck - all my horticulture knowledge, and for me it’s still a gamble. 

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to

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