Tomato Jonestown

Because I think we could all use a grin at the end of what has been a wild and heartbreaking week, I’m sharing a quick bit of something I wrote several years ago. It’s a part of a longer story in my book Uprooted: Growing A Parable Life From the Inside Out, but I am sharing it here because every spring, when all the gardeners are girding their loins for another round of Human Vs. Nature, I get a little nostalgic about my own doomed attempts at gardening.

Tomato Jonestown

A few years ago, my family moved into a home on a shaded, tree-filled lot in a suburban subdivision. I decided to turn the one sunny spot in the backyard into a garden, and spent days digging up sod, breaking up hard clay, and removing rock and weed from my plot. I sowed some lettuce and radish seeds, and then planted a row of tiny tomato plants I’d purchased at a local garden center. Even as I planted, I thought I could almost taste my tomatoes, sliced on a plate, dressed with a splash of extra virgin olive oil, black pepper and fresh basil.

My harvest included 2-1/2 microscopic radishes and a handful of bug-infested lettuce. The tomatoes were my last hope. I tended my little tomato plants with care. They struggled to grow, their leaves a lemony pale green. I threw some fertilizer around them, but and wondered if I offended the tomato plants somehow. Within 48 hours of budding into flower, each and every tomato plant died. A mass suicide.

I chalked it up to some sort of angry tomato disease or a bum batch of fertilizer, and vowed to try again the next year.  The following spring, I added some top soil to the tired, heavy dirt in my garden and nestled a row of tomato plants into my garden.  Visions of grilled gruyere and dead ripe tomato sandwiches danced in my head.

It was a repeat of the previous year’s tomato Jonestown. My plants…my babies!…set flowers, and promptly died.

I’d invited a friend to come see view the bodies of my dearly-departed tomato plants. She glanced around my tree-filled yard and asked, “What kind of trees did you say those are?”

“Black walnuts,” I responded. “The squirrels love `em.”

“Ah ha!” she cried. “Those trees pump a toxic substance into the soil that kills many other plants.”  That substance, juglone, is toxic to all kinds of growing things. Tomatoes were at the top of the list for plants that could not grow near black walnut trees. I learned that even if I clear-cut those 17 trees to the ground, it would take years for the soil to be rid of the toxins.

I threw down some grass seed and called it quits on my agricultural career.


Are you a gardener? What is your favorite thing to grow? 


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  • Since you no longer have the black walnut “Koolaid” to prompt mass tomato suicide, aren’t you tempted to try to grow tomatoes again, maybe in a pot on your porch? We have had success especially growing cherry tomatoes in containers.
    To answer your question, my favorite veggies to grow are the ones whose taste simply can’t be matched by store-bought veggies: early purple Italian garlic, jaune flamee heirloom tomatoes, (any kind of tomato, actually), sugar snap peas, Maxibel French filet beans, and broccoli. I like growing sweet red peppers for the excitement of seeing them turn red, but store-bought peppers beat the taste of any I’ve ever grown.

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Ha! Black walnut Kool-Aid!
    I may again try container gardening this year. Herbs at minimum. (Can a person ever have enough fresh basil on hand?)
    Reading the list of what you enjoy growing is a cook’s delight. Now, if only it would stop raining and warm up a bit so you could get out in the garden and start digging, right?