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Lined up by my kitchen sink are the cut-off bases of half-gallon milk cartons filled with rich black soil. In each is a wooden Popsicle stick marked with a black Sharpie: tomato, basil, cilantro.
The counter is a temporary home. When tiny green tendrils poke up through the dirt, the carton is moved to a shelf in a south-facing window in my mom’s apartment.
I don’t remember when I last grew garden plants from seed. Many years ago I deemed it too much trouble and instead bought the peppers, tomatoes and herbs I plant in May from an area garden store.
But this year is different. Maybe it’s because the past week’s warm weather, hovering around 80 degrees, has teased me with the promise of starting a garden earlier than usual this year, throwing caution to the wind and planting green beans, tomatoes and peppers a lot earlier than the area’s Zone 6 recommendation date. And it’s only March. This Florida girl learned a long time ago that local gardeners planted tomatoes on Derby Day to be sure the last frost date had passed.
But the real reason I’m starting plants indoors is to continue the lineage of a tomato plant that showed up by our front door last summer. Bushy and large-leafed, it was healthier than any tomato plant in the garden. We never could figure out how it got there. Did a critter steal a tomato from our neighbor’s lush garden and leave part of it there? Did a bird leave some droppings and provide a rich germination pod for a seed that was enclosed?
Even after my husband accidentally cut it down with the weed eater — he profusely apologized, knowing how I had delighted in the mystery — it came back thick and green. And the front of our house doesn’t get much sun until late afternoon, hardly ideal growing conditions. But by the end of the summer, three tomatoes had appeared, and I babied them, covering them the nights a frost was predicted, until they began to ripen.
Those seeds deserved to be saved so the tomato plant could live another year, I reasoned. I carefully dried and stored them.
I did the same with seeds from an especially prolific cherry tomato volunteer I had plucked from near the compost pile in the back and potted up. We picked red gems from that plant until way into the fall.
And I figure that because those over achievers are second-year plants and not hybrids I purchased from a garden center, it’s a pretty safe bet they won’t regress to a parent plant, bearing little resemblance to the prized progeny.
So I bought some potting soil last month and started saving the cartons, and while I was at it thought I might plant some herbs. And why not dry seeds from the orange and yellow peppers I cut up for salad?
It’s spring. It’s beautiful outside. We have an extra hour of daylight every night.
And I have tiny green miracles on my kitchen counter, bursting with the sweet promise of bearing the first ripe tomato of the season.
Suzanne Darland teaches journalism classes and is director of the faculty advising center at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.