My dad had a knack for growing things, and just about every seed, cutting, or plant he placed in the ground grew like gangbusters. If they didn’t, he’d by god do something about it. The shelves in his lean-to garden shed held an arsenal of insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, turf builders, weed killers, and slug granules. I believed I had a knack, too, but I paled in comparison to the master.
Every summer, we waged tomato wars. We began in the spring when we planted an agreed upon species of seeds—Early Girls were a favorite choice—and the race was on for the first to raise the first sprout. From there, we competed for the first yellow bloom, the first tiny green orb. The one who plucked the first ripe fruit won the grand prize.
Their house in Paonia nestles against a hillside that Mom tried to tame with wild and other flowers, but it had a disorderliness that Dad loved. Though the property is only ¼ acre, Dad managed to plant yards and fruit and garden plots that wrapped around their home. I lived in Maher, a tiny town twenty miles away and 2000 feet higher in elevation. At the higher altitude, I could never really could compete, but I could lie well.
“My tomatoes are getting pink, Dad.”
He assured me his were pinker.
I’m certain my lies prompted him to pour on an extra dose of Miracle Gro, and I’m equally certain he never believed me. There never was a prize except for the bragging rights that we carried from one year to the next. Each year brought a new contest. For variation, and I think to give me a chance because I could never win at tomatoes, we lied about our zucchini crops. So it went from one year to the next.
I visited Mom and Dad often, and with each visit, I hardly hugged Mom hello, and he’d be at my side, often with a dandelion digger in his hand or a hopeful look, ready to rush me off for an inspection of the crops.
First, we oohed and aahed at the hill beside the house first, which was mostly Mom’s artistry with flamboyant annuals and pastel perennials. Dad pointed out her recent additions and cursed the fact that she kept trying to dig up the pretty sweet peas he had planted.
“They’ll take over the hill, Dad,” I told him, but he loved their profusion of pink blossoms throughout the summer. He conceded a few plants, but he wouldn’t let Mom dig them all up. Secretly, I helped her pull up a few. They spread like weeds by dropping seeds and bore new plants wherever their stems touched the ground.
After inspecting the hill, we wandered to the backyard where he planted boxwood and dogwood and different kinds of shrubs with the hopes of coaxing them into a hedge around the cozy grass square. Though he planted most of the shrubs the same year, some were four feet tall and sprawling, while others barely came up to his knees and looked like stunted runts.
“Ditch seepage,” he told me. “It’s the goddamn leaking Stewart Ditch.”
And it was. Cut around the hillside above their house decades earlier, the ditch leaked. Wet, rainy years were worse than dry, and the seepage saturated the soil. Grass, trees, and garden plants turned sallow yellow. Sweet peas, however, seemed to loved the dampness.
In the middle of the backyard in the mid-’80s, Dad planted a weeping willow. It grew quickly, both up and down. Twenty years later, scores of branches wept to the ground, and it was difficult to mow under them unless they were trimmed. Walking through them was a like a constant battle of brushing hair out of your eyes. Dad worked away from home a lot, and I helped him and Mom with maintenance as much as I could. One summer day while he was on the road, I ambitiously lopped the low-hanging branches so I could mow and grandkids could play under the tree. He yelled at me when he returned and I was hurt. It was as if I had dug up the damn tree. I didn’t realize he liked the wildness of the willows as much as he liked the wildness of the hill. We didn’t talk about it again, but soon afterward, he planted a flowering almond on the hillside that still blooms pink in the spring. He named it the Kimi Tree.
The fruit plot beside the backyard was the next stop on our tour. Though blackberry canes were planted at the outer edges, they wove their thorny runners among the trees. I cut those back once, too, but even he admitted they had rambled too far. Dad had a devil of a time growing fruit trees, but each year he planted a different apple tree, a new nectarine, a plum hybrid, or a fancier brand of berry, and each year, he fought apple scabs and aphids, blight, cankers, leaf spot, rot, and whatever other infestation found its way into his little orchard. Each year he bemoaned—then sprayed—the worms that bored into his golden delicious apples, and the bugs that curled and deformed his nectarine leaves. I added my own thoughts about soap spray, ladybugs, and other less environmentally harmful forms of insect control. Dad had tried some of “those organic controls,” but they were too expensive or too ineffective, and he assured me that “Nothing works like malathion,” and he just needed to spray sooner.
After putting the fruit issues to rest, we moved on to his garden, beside the fruit plot. We inspected beans and zucchinis, cucumbers and cabbage, and plucked and dug any weeds we found as we meandered our way between the raised beds. He saved the tomatoes for last, which were always taller, bushier, Miracle Gro greener, and more fruit-laden than mine.
“Growing like weeds, aren’t they, Kimiloo?”
“Did I forget to tell you that we had sliced tomatoes last night?” I replied.
He didn’t get up to my house often, so my fibs were safe, but he concluded the discussion by telling me I was full of it.
My life changed because of a divorce, a job, a move to southeastern Colorado 300 miles away, and later, a new marriage. My new home was lower in elevation and much hotter than western Colorado’s more temperate climate. And there, I could grow tomatoes like a champion. The first year I lived there, I grew the first sprout, the first green orb, and the first ripe tomato, but after I shared the sprout news, I had no joy, even though Dad sounded happy for me. That’s what dads do, but the spell was broken and the contest was never the same. As long as Dad had braggin’ rights, he could still teach me a thing or two. The tours, however, did not change.
For the first two years, I visited home every couple of months. If it was in the spring or summer, as soon as I hugged Mom, Dad was there with his digger and hopeful look, ready to escort me about the property. As always, he showed me his latest disease-resistant tree that wasn’t. As always, he showed me Early Girl plants dotted with tomatoes. And as always, we plucked the wayward weeds that crowded his vegetables.
The visits became fewer, and four years after I moved, my first visit was in early June. The tomatoes hadn’t blossomed yet, and Dad said the Kimi Tree had been especially pretty a few weeks earlier.
And then, I didn’t visit them the entire summer. We bragged as best as we could about our crops over the phone and discussed my harlequin bug issues and his tree blight issues. Several times he asked me when I was coming to see him—he had one of his best tomato crops ever—and he couldn’t wait for me to see it.
It’s odd the way life goes sometimes. After those summer months passed by, my husband asked me on a late September night, “Do you have any regrets?” And the same night I answered, “I wish I would have seen the tomatoes.”
And the day after I expressed my wish, Mom called and said my dad had a heart attack and was probably not going to live through the day. I drove for hours and was able to sit by his side into the evening. I talked about tomatoes and bugs and tours in the garden, but he did not wake up.
And the next time I visited and walked up to hug my mother hello, I looked toward the backyard and saw that the blackberry branches had rambled out of control and the willow tree branches wept to the ground.
Kimi Kelley lives in La Junta and teaches English and literature courses at Otero Junior College and the Fort Lyon Supportive Rehabilitation Community. She has written a book, Just Passin’ Through, a collection of stories by and about formerly homeless people who now reside at Fort Lyon. It will soon be published by Rhyolite Press. She enjoys gardening, writing about gardening, and her chickens, which happen to be great pest and weed controllers!