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Finding My Inner Farmer

How an urban tomato garden helped one woman get back in touch with her country roots.

By Peggy Frezon, Rensselaer, New York

As appeared in

Overall I'm a country girl. Vermont, originally, which is just about all country. Growing up, I spent every bright, sunny day outside playing with my dogs, climbing trees and running in our grassy backyard. Most of all, I loved working in our little garden, puttering around, pulling weeds with my mom, breathing in the clean, fresh air. And I probably took it for granted back then.

I met Mike in college. We married and eventually moved to a neighborhood across the Hudson River from Albany, New York. I was happy to have a cozy house together and a good church nearby. But I couldn't help pining for the country.

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One bright morning Mike and I took our spaniel, Kelly, for her walk around the block, and returned to our little front yard. That is, the narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street that we called a yard. "This old strip of dirt is good for nothing," I said, and frowned at the lone greenery: two scraggly shrubs, each branch holding sparse brownish needles, like a comb missing half its teeth.

Mike looked the space over. "I don't know about that," he said. He knelt down and scooped up a handful of dirt. "I've been thinking of planting tomatoes here."

"Tomatoes? You've got to be kidding. Kids use this dirt as a trash bin. Stray cats use it as a litter box. This is the city."

"Maybe so," Mike said quietly, "but I'm growing tomatoes."

The next weekend Mike raked out the muck from that crazy dirt patch. Later, he drove off on an errand. I peeked out the front door in time to see him return with a low cardboard box full of inch-high leafy seedlings. "Okay, Old MacDonald," I kidded him, "I hope you know what you're doing." I watched him kneel on the hard asphalt driveway and arrange the plants carefully in the dirt.

Every day Mike worked outside, exercising his inner farmer. He weeded and watered diligently, as if cultivating a rare botanical treasure. "Come outside and help me," he called, waving a muddy trowel. "It's great!"

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"Maybe later," I said. I didn't think there was much point. My faith in Mike's tomato project was pretty weak.

One day, however, I was returning from a walk with Kelly and stopped short. Those little seedlings had actually grown to about a foot high, filling in the narrow space along the driveway. Green, healthy leaves jutted out in all directions, and a few tiny yellow flowers dotted the branches. Turns out that patch of dirt was actually good for growing tomatoes. A kind of hothouse effect was created by the sun beating down on our cement-block foundation on one side and bouncing off the black tarred driveway on the other. Who would have believed that a tomato garden would actually benefit from living in the city? I thought.

Soon the plants were so tall that the branches tangled around their cramped neighbors. "You need cages," a friend suggested. So Mike went to the garden center and bought 12 wire tomato cages. He placed them over the plants, and they continued to grow, taller than I'd ever seen tomato plants grow back in Vermont. Mike must be doing something right, I thought. Before long the plants loomed over my head. I peeked between the branches; there dangled little green tomatoes. As the summer days grew longer, I noticed the tomatoes lighten, then turn a deep, orangey red.

"Want to help?" Mike asked one afternoon, offering me an old bushel basket. His eyes sparkled with such excitement, I couldn't say no. As I stood before the plants, my face lifted to the warm sun, I breathed in a fresh, familiar aroma. It was more than just the smell of tomatoes. It was a sense of how God's provisions are all around us. Suddenly, there was nothing I'd rather do than work side by side with Mike in his garden.

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Together, we picked fresh, ripe tomatoes until our baskets were full. For lunch, I sliced thick juicy slabs and layered them on hearty wheat bread. Just a little mayo and the sandwiches were perfect. But after weeks of salads and BLTs, and sharing our yield with friends, family and our church, we still had more tomatoes than we knew what to do with.