tomatoes

It’s mid-July, and we continue to hold our collective neighborhood breath over the weather.

As growing years go, this one’s been a bit challenging. It’s gotten way too hot some days. It’s gotten unseasonably chilly some nights. And rainfall hereabouts has been about as “iffy” as it gets.

July can “make or break” many of the crops we grow around here. Corn, soybeans, grain, hay and the various seasonal produce crops we so much enjoy are all very dependent on regular and adequate amounts of rainfall. Unlike many areas of the country, irrigation isn’t easily available for most of us here who source our livelihoods from the soils in our regionally rolling and hilly terrain.

So most of us do a lot of complaining, worrying and — I’m sure — praying, about the weather.

So far, just enough rain has fallen, at just the vitally critical times, to yank us from the edge of drought and nudge the fields of row crops along as needed. The corn has stretched tall enough to block our view of the neighbors and our meadow deer are getting less visible as they munch the tender soybean leaves.

But the mid-summer garden evaluation has tallied a mixed-bag of crop successes and failures.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

A bag of sugar snap peas shared by a generous friend who had excess just about equaled the total yield from my two small plantings. Despite the peas being mulched and occasionally watered, our stretches of early heat and dryness — and visits by the inquisitive, scratching hens and the escaped-beefers garden rodeo — combined to push that short-season crop into this year’s “bad” results category.

An assortment of mixed lettuces scored in the “good” category this year, primarily due to being grown under plastic and regularly hand-watered. A variety I tried, “Ice Queen,” was especially good, sort of a cross between a leaf and a head lettuce, with crisp, frilly leaves. It’s booked for a late season rerun for salad fodder through fall. The hoop cover will have to go back over it to discourage an invading garden bunny.

Jet Star, Celebrity and Mountain Fresh tomato plants sport thick, sturdy vines, sprawling out over the sides of their wooden frame supports, laden with fruit. They’re all still aggravatingly green. Our stretches of 100-degree-at-noon days apparently didn’t counter those unusually chilly nights to push early tomatoes.

What a bummer, because I absolutely love fresh, garden-ripened tomatoes; they never ripen soon enough for me. Still, these are repeat varieties that I know will qualify for the “good” category, despite how “bad” it is that they seem to take forever each season to get to their juicy, red ripeness.

“Do you have any tomatoes yet?” asked our daughter as she stopped by one recent afternoon. I handed her the two cherry tomatoes I’d picked, first yields of a Sweet 100 plant I’d bought on a whim and planted in a large tub outside the calf barn/chicken coop. The lone stalk is now approaching 6 feet tall, with the many branches tied up to the barn roof supports with sturdy lengths of baler twine. The Farmer has dubbed it the “tomato tree” and it will surely qualify for the “good” category.

Blue Lake bush string beans are begging for picking just as soon as I finish writing these lines. This variety performed so well last season for a gardening friend who shared some that I planted them this year. Heavily laden with young beans and blooms, they also appear to be “good” list candidates.

The old reliable National Pickling cucumber wasn’t dependable this year; apparently the seeds were getting old. And a few that did come up had their leaves pecked off, despite my covering them. A second attempt with a different variety shows some promise and is sheltered with a larger, wire, anti-chicken frame. The cucumber crop has been in a bit of a pickle so far this year, so to speak, so we’ll withhold final judging.

An inedible volunteer in the flower bed has me puzzled, though, as to what category it fits. The seed of the Hopi Red Dye amaranth came from a lone plant salvaged from ravenous insects last year, scraggly and fading when I transplanted it. Now, several of its self-seeded offspring tower 4 feet above chrysanthemum and marigold neighbors, on tough stalks so thick I can hardly wrap my hand around them.

As an ornamental, the maroon-red amaranth plants are impressive and make colorful bouquet material. But, they’re close cousins of the dreaded Palmer amaranth, a sturdy giant of a weed already running amok across the Midwest. A combine header that is run into a patch of the trunk-like stems of the Palmer amaranth can suffer serious, expensive damage.

I’ve begun to wonder what would happen if those tall, vigorous, sturdy Red Dye amaranth plants escaped to the nearby fields and, like the dreaded Palmer cousin, invaded the corn and soybeans next year.

That would definitely toss them — and me for sure — into the “ugly” category.

Maybe the guys can chainsaw them down before they go to seed.

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.

Newsletter

What To Read Next