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Monday, July 13, 2009

The Tornado that Wasn't and the Wall-O-Maters

Tomato cages, like atoms, are mostly empty space. I've had my hog wire tomato cages for as long as I’ve lived here, sixteen years. I made them by cutting one-yard sections of the fencing and rolling them to make a tube by connecting and twisting the cut horizontal wires around the vertical wires. They are set in place with green metal fence posts stobbed into the ground. I hadn’t needed the cages for the last three years while they stayed stacked in a pyramid of air behind the garage. I thought I could grow some really fine tomato plants in large five to ten gallon containers around the sides of the driveway where it would be easier to tend rather than tromp out to the big garden at the back of the property. But I was only kidding myself. Even when I did what all the container gardening experts said to do, I couldn’t get a Park’s Whopper much bigger than a lemon. I’m used to growing a tomato big enough to make a sandwich with one single slice. And that Topsy Turvy tomato planter thing is a joke. Don’t waste your money.

Well, sir, I decided back around Thanksgiving that I was through with container gardening. Heck, I have the land and ought to be using it like the good Lord intended, growing something to stuff in my face. But my hog wire cages had succumbed to the elements back there behind the garage, being no more substantial now than so much brown cobwebs. It was the tornado last year that drew my attention to that fact.

The 2008 Brookdale Acres/Gap Creek Tornado that formed over Tab’s Flea Market on Wade Hampton Boulevard, Highway 29, with no warning and undetected by the National Weather Service, shucked off all my shingles, uprooted many trees and bushes (including my thirty-foot pink dogwood), twisted others like licorice whips, turned my eight-foot wooden fence into splinters, sucked the water from the hot tub, smashed cars, spun shingles through the neighborhood like circular saw blades into anything in their way, and sent the metal walls of an above-ground pool whipping and writhing in the air like a streamer of toilet paper to land crumpled on a neighbor’s front steps 100 yards away. The tornado, which the NWS called straight-line winds instead (because they didn’t send out a warning), but the neighbor said on TV he “seen” a tornado coming up the road, lifted the house across the street off its foundation and smashed it right back down, causing the roof to split along the ridge, warp the whole frame, shifting the bricks and foundation. It took the insurance people a couple of days to decide to condemn the structure and rebuild the house.

As Ken and the State Farm man assessed the damage, starting in the front of the house and working their way to the back of the property, while local new teams swarmed the neighborhood, I started in the rear where I discovered the tomato cages, mostly rust dust, smashed to smithereens by a small pecan limb. Oh, well. I wasn’t using them anymore, I thought. I had my containers, right? many of which were shoved over and emptied on the ground by the winds. We found one of the planters cradled in the top branches of a giant white oak in the woods across the street. It’s still there along with a Christmas wreath from who-knows-where. Spring break was just around the corner and I thought I could make some new cages then, but I never did. My rheumatiz-stricken hands couldn’t squeeze the wire cutters as easily as they could fifteen years before. I tried the container garden one more time, but decided to go back to a real garden after that third season of puny produce.

In late January, Ken began tilling the old garden spot we had been using for a burn pile. He tilled it about three different times. I expressed my doubts that we would be able to grow anything there this year, thinking it would be too alkaline because of the ashes. And sure enough, as the days warmed, when there should have been weeds sprouting, not even a sprig of chickweed grew. The spot was nothing but a scald. However, I didn’t want to break new ground just yet. So we transformed the old flower beds around the patio inside the new wooden fence (complements of State Farm) into a cool crop garden with lettuces, cabbage, and broccoli. During spring break I planted six Park’s Whoppers I had started from seed back in February in the patio garden. A couple of weeks later we noticed the tilled spot had some little weeds growing in it. I figured all the rain we had in early spring diluted the natural lye from the ashes and decided to take a chance with some more crops out there.

I bought a real cheap nine-pack of Rutgers tomatoes at Walmart, marked down because they were yellow and scrawny as pencil leads. If they died in the ground, it didn’t matter. I had to do this experiment. But how was I going to stake them up if they did thrive? I’d used most of the old metal posts in the patio garden. This is when I realized the tornado had given me an answer. We still had the old drive-through, chain-linked gate leaning against the fence in the back yard, all ten feet of it, the one that was warped when the kids’ trampoline was flung into it. I never did like that gate, it was too heavy, and I had to use two hands to open it. We replaced it with an easy-open double gate.

With the old warped gate and the last three metal fence posts, I created a 5:1 incline for the tomatoes to creep up if they grew at all. And they did grow like crazy after being stunted for about a month. As the vines grew, I lashed them to the fence with some ties I made form an old pair of pantyhose cut calamari style. What I have now is a wall-o-‘maters. They are loaded with green tomatoes, and I’ve been harvesting ripe tomatoes since July 4th weekend. I like this new arrangement very much. And it’s way easier than empty space that takes up so much space.

Here is a slide show of the damage.

The Wall-o-maters.

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