Sunday, June 6, 2010


Last summer, I attempted my very first urban gardening experiment. My goals were modest, as I only tried growing three plants: cilantro, basil, and a tomato plant. The cilantro, I tried to grow from seed. Unfortunately, the seeds never sprouted no matter how much (or little) I watered them, so eventually I dumped the soil and chalked it up to bad seeds.

The basil, I purchased as a small starter plant from the Greenmarket in Union Square. Initially, it flourished quite nicely . . . until one day it decided to dry up, lay down, and die. (More specifically, its stalks began to turn brown from the soil on up. I tried giving it more water, but to no avail—my basil plant kicked the can. Or perhaps “pot” would be better terminology, in this case.)

The tomato plant was also purchased from Union Square, and consequently started out with promise. As it grew bigger, I transplanted it and staked it so that by mid-July it looked like I might actually get some tomatoes . . . until my neighbors ran over it with their car. Undeterred, I tried tying the plant upright again and coaxing it back to health. To reward me for my efforts, my plant yielded one red, ripe tomato . . . which—since driving over it with their car clearly hadn’t been enough—my neighbors promptly stole right off the vine. (Read my account of the whole episode here.)

This summer, I decided that due to my dismal track record, I would simply try to grow the same plants again. If met with success, I may consider branching out next summer and growing something crazy like . . . broccoli or green beans! This summer, however, I chose to repeat last summer’s regimen with one slight alteration. I planted the remaining cilantro seeds, bought a basil plant at Union Square, and (here’s the change) took several baby tomato plants from Dan’s garden rather than buying one at Union Square. Not much difference, but a difference nonetheless.

This time, the successes of my herbs reversed. Currently, the cilantro seeds are sprouting quite nicely (thus debunking my initial claim that it was the seeds that failed the first time. In hindsight, I think perhaps I planted them too shallowly. Unfortunately, there is no way to know). The leaves on my basil plant, however, are beginning to turn a bit yellow. In an attempt to save what is truly my favorite herb, I broke it into four sections and transplanted them into a larger pot. Fingers crossed.

Unfortunately, while my herbs may at least survive for a season, it seems I am just not meant to yield a successful tomato crop ever. When I first planted the little stalks (in a nice neat row, I might add, in one of those rectangular planters), they started growing just fine. Then, however, their leaves started turning yellow. I made a concerted effort to water the plants more, and even made plans to buy some plant food. They were already receiving ample sunlight, being arranged outside my kitchen window on my fire escape, so I was certain that wasn’t the problem. As it turns out, sunlight wasn’t the problem; their location on the fire escape was.

I have never thought of cats as a menace to outdoor plant life. Granted, my cat Twinkie used to occasionally try to eat the leaves of our houseplants, but I have always assumed that stray cats have more pressing matters to attend to . . . like foraging in garbage cans or fighting rats or avoiding traffic. Furthermore, the backyard behind my apartment building is full of overgrown foliage, so while I have seen a number of stray cats basking in the sunlit grass from time to time, I have never thought of them as anything more than cute, unfortunate creatures. That is, however, until the incident with my tomato plants.

As I stated before, my tomato plants’ leaves began to turn yellow about a week or so after I planted them. Additional watering wasn’t helping, so I was just about to buy plant food in hopes that maybe the soil I had purchased to pot them was merely inadequate, when it happened. I arrived home from work one night expecting to go through my ritual of checking my plants’ soil for dryness and watering them accordingly. As I slid up the screen of my kitchen window, I noticed that a few tomato plants were missing. Glancing further down the trough, I saw that quite a bit of soil had been shoved out of the planter at the far left end, and stringy white roots were strewn about. All that remained of the tomato plants was one small stalk with a few limp leaves, lying on its side in the middle of the mess.

The crime: tomato plant homicide.

The culprit: stray cats.

Needless to say, I took the one sad, lonely remaining stalk and propped it up in a mug with some soil. This is my final attempt. If I cannot keep this last plant from ravaged, foraged, or otherwise destroyed, I will not attempt to grow tomatoes again until I am living in a quaint suburban home with a neat little garden that I can fence in with netting, chicken wire, or even barbed wire if I so choose. Neighbors and cats beware: I might not have a green thumb, but all it takes to build a good booby trap is a little creativity and a thirst for revenge.


Gordon said...

I'm going to pass this on to my mom. I've just been talking with her about her having the exact same patterns of success with herbs and tomatoes -- and there are indeed stray cats around, ones who've kind of taken over the territory right around the house from her own cat.

Neen said...

Everything steals/eats my tomatoes so my solution was finally to plant them in a hanging basket. It works best with smaller varieties like plum, roma, or cherry tomatoes but it keeps them off of the ground and away from at least some critters.
I have three cherry tomatoes that I'm guarding with my life.

Everything else looks so great (zucchini, watermelon, spinach and peppers) but tomatoes just love to elude me. Good luck!