Granted, I do have the summer off. This gives me the cool early mornings to drink tea, the opportunity for a leisurely gym workout, and ample time to plan meals and read utterly forgettable who-dun-its. This year I decided to add gardening to my daily routine.
Starting simple, I decided to grow two tomato plants. It has been so long since I have eaten a real tomato that I have forgotten what one tastes like. The hothouse jobs in the supermarket are so symmetrical that they look like holiday ornaments: perfectly round; uniformly red; blemish-free; and hard as a baseball and almost as tasty. Every now and then, a box or bag of cherry tomatoes hints at its tangy ancestors, so I bought two promising plants named “Million Dollar Baby.” I planted them in large pots and put them on the deck for daily monitoring.
Each morning I go out to my tomato plants and encourage them to do well. I tell them about my past gardening experience in the 70’s and 80’s. Five “French-intensive” (raised) beds, forty feet long and four feet wide, made up the garden. Each of these beds was “double-dug” before planting, using the latest knowledge of companion plants. A root crop, like carrots or beets, was planted right next to lettuce or broccoli. Parsley and tomatoes made perfect companions. The intensive part was proximity: once the plants were established, they grew so close together that weeds found it impossible to intrude. Two tomato plants in 2011 hardly compares to five beds forty feet long in 1981, but the hope of eating my own tomatoes on a toasted cheese sandwich springs eternal.
One morning just a few weeks ago, I noticed curling leaves on my precious Million Dollar Babies. Viewing their tender undersides revealed aphids, just a few dozen, carefully tended by shepherd ants. I was livid. A few angry keystrokes later, I was advised: “aphids find tomato plants toxic: grind a cup of tomato leaves with water, strain the liquid, and spray on the aphids.” Ha! Aphids are sucking my tomatoes dry and I am advised to spray them with their current drug of choice? The limitations of the Internet.
A few sites later revealed the answer: a mixture of mineral oil, Murphy’s soap, and water. In a rare moment of empathy for the last meal of these death-row aphids, I decided to use cold tea instead of water. A moment of Gandhi-like mercy on my part: just before the aphids suffocated on mineral oil, they would have a sip of tea – Keemun to be exact. I mixed up the goo and sprayed it on the undersides of all the leaves. The aphids moved to the tops, so I sprayed the tops. Half an hour later, I went out to the plants with a magnifying glass. No aphids. Wait, close inspection of the tip of one leaf. It looked like an aphid, waving a tiny white flag.
“Tetley’s Ty-nee Tips,” read the tiny sign. I smashed that aphid between thumb and forefinger. Filthy little blighters. Sap-sucking ingrate invertebrates have the chutzpah to call a Keemun by the name of Tetley? I was reminded of the 80’s, when aphids nearly wiped out my bumper crop of brussels sprouts. I was advised to spray them with a mixture of macerated garlic and water. Those aphids showed up the next day wearing pin-striped suits and fedoras. I should have learned then: never give your pests an inch.
Back to the present: after two weeks, the aphids were back, along with their shepherds. I was still pretty sore over the Tetley insult, so I decided not to mix Keemun with their death-brew. Oh no. This time, it was “Russian Caravan.” Russian Caravan is a blend that calls to mind wet wool steaming in front of a dried camel-dung fire. I sprayed the tops of the leaves, the bottoms of the leaves, the stems, and the outside of the pots for good measure.
The aphids are gone, and I am enjoying Keemun every morning as I watch the blossoms on my Million Dollar Babies. When I enjoy that toasted cheese and tomato lunch, I think I’ll drink an oolong. Salud!
NOTE: “Ty-nee Tips” is registered to Tetley Teas, but used by Tuckfields, a tea company in Australia.