Last time I posted here I was admiring the volunteer forest of tomatoes that had sprung up in the backyard. I even sat out there one day and tried to capture what it felt like to sit in the tomato forest. I treated it as a forest, too, left the understory on the ground. I did clip out non-bearing branches quite often, and the plants produced new shoots as soon as I could clip them off. I tended the chard, giving what water I could save from boiling pasta and washing vegetables. I watched the kale flower — I don’t care much about this kale, a gray-green variety that a friend gave me, so I was not overly concerned.
I should have been concerned. I did notice when I went out to dole out water to the chard that the kale was alive, shimmering with pests, but I didn’t care if the pests took down the kale plant. My chard was healthy and kept making new chard plants. One section of tomatoes had beautiful crowns of blossoms three feet above the ground. I began to think we might eat our first ripe tomato by the last day of May. We did. We cut it in half and had a little ceremony for the first fruits of the summer.
Later, after a rare rain and some cloudy days I noticed white specks in the tallest section of tomatoes. I thought it was mildew brought on by the damp. I hoped for sunny weather to dry it out and was not concerned.
I should have been concerned. The white specks turned out to be aphids and I am now battling to save what I can of the tomato plants. I prune them savagely, losing unripe tomatoes and blossoms with every cut of my shears. I save bath water, impregnate it with organic lemongrass soap and blast away for hours at the besieged plants. I toss the prunings into an old pot with waste water, submerging them to kill aphids and eggs. I pluck every yellow or brown or decayed leaf from the ground, clearing the understory of aphid hiding places. I was out there many hours Monday and yesterday afternoon. And then I had to take a break. I was exhausting myself and the aphids were continuing to spread and reproduce.
I looked up various remedies. I knew lady bugs ate aphids. I found out that it takes 1500 lady bugs to clean the aphids off one plant, that they usually fly away within forty-eight hours and you usually need two batches just to be sure. Lady bugs were out, unless I could buy them by the truckload.
Hard sprays of water from a hose are supposed to blast aphids off the plants. We are in a major drought here and only water with waste water. We do not have a gray water system. Using a hose is out. It’s up to me and my clippers and spray bottle. Sigh.
But then today I woke up to steady rain! Rain! Not only would it strengthen and nourish the plants and soil, but aphids hate it. After a late breakfast I found myself out in the garden with my clips and sprayer, dressed in a shift and a pair of old sandals, enjoying the rain on my skin. I worked for nearly three hours, worked until my back could take no more. I came into the house, thinking I would have lunch. Instead, I drank two quarts of water and headed back into the rain to treat more branches.
I worked again until I could work no more. I hung my soaked shift in the bathroom and put on a robe. I had a belated snack of leftover cornbread, a few tomatoes and two cups of tea. I had promised Johnny an early dinner, so I could not linger out in the garden.
Now the rain has stopped, but the battle will continue.
My mistake was in not seeing that everything is connected. The aphids that were destroying the kale would move to the tomatoes, or the conditions that were producing a banner crop of aphids that feed on kale could produce tomato-eating aphids, too. My second mistake was not investigating the first white specks more thoroughly, not turning leaves over to look. By the time I realized what was there, the infestation was in full swing.
My yard gave me the tomato plants, more than I would have ever planted on my own. I envisioned a bigger crop than I have ever had. with tomatoes for drying. for pasta sauce, for eating raw, tomatoes for my friends and family. So far, I have delivered half a basket of green tomatoes to my friend Elaine and we have half a basket of ripe cherry tomatoes on our kitchen table. There are many green tomatoes still on the vine and many months left in tomato season. There are only so many hours a day to devote to aphid warfare, however, and I don’t know what I will save.
I think of my friend Celi, a full-time farmer. She has lost animals and bees and, undoubtedly, plants as well. She is growing her own food. I am trying to grow some of mine, tomatoes and chard. I’m still using last year’s butternut squash from this very garden. I admire anyone who grows organic food successfully. I read about plants aphids hate and think perhaps I will plant mint everywhere (I have one small pot of it). Maybe I can learn to propagate mint plants from stem cuttings.
Just two weeks ago I was admiring the indefatigable tomato plants, producing shoot after shoot. I was thinking that they were teaching me how to continue in all circumstances. I could just as well admire the indefatigable aphids, who only want to live and reproduce, but I’d rather have tomatoes than aphids.