Tomato Tying Time
By Jo Dwyer
Photography by Farmer John 

We all like to be needed in some way, don’t we? Being an especially attentive spouse, say, or an exemplary parent, a trusted friend or a pillar of the community, not only nudges a person toward the guarantee of good karma, but also helps give a certain meaning to life. A reason to get up every morning, at the very least.

And yet some folks never fully come to understand what essential quality they possess that sets them apart from the rest. So I realize I’m lucky that, after all these years, I’ve finally discovered mine.

I tie up tomato plants like nobody’s business. So many, in fact, that we at Angel Valley Farm are far too exhausted to produce a fall crop. But you may not be, so read on. You may, or may not, learn something.

Tomato plants are vines. They don’t stand up on their own. In our efforts to manage the thousands of indeterminate plants we grow throughout the tomato season, we must continue to tie them up. While the plants are still relatively small, my husband, Farmer John, drives metal stakes into the ground at three-plant intervals. I follow up behind with my roll of twine, stringing it from stake to stake along one side of the row. Then I do the same down the other side of the row, thus cinching the plants between the twine.

Once the plants have grown another foot, I repeat the exercise a little higher up on the stakes. Another foot later, another wrapping of twine, and so on until the plants have grown taller than I, and have surpassed the height of the metal stakes.

During our busiest time, it’s difficult to keep up with all the rows. Consequently, while we’re looking the other way, the plants continue to grow until their branches droop from the sheer weight of themselves, unrestrained by that much-needed cinching of twine. When that happens, our primary tomato pickers are forced to tunnel between the tomato rows on their hands and knees in order to harvest.

That’s when I come to the rescue. Everyone at the farm is quite capable of tying tomato rows, but when the plants get terribly wild, John and I simply don’t have the heart to ask anyone else to do it. Farmer John is so busy doing important Farmer John things that asking him to help me do this job would be one job too many. Thus, the task of tying the most unfettered rows falls on my shoulders, and my shoulders alone.

Indeterminate varieties are the teenage boys of the tomato world. They grow and grow and grow, tall and gangly, then continue to grow some more. It’s only because of their incredible flavor that we tolerate their behavior. Just like teenage boys, they continually test one’s patience.

After wrestling through those gigantic tomato plants, pushing all my weight into them in the attempt to wrap yet another level of twine, I sometimes wonder if the foliage might swallow me right up. By the time I finish, my clothing is almost as dark as the rims of my black farm glasses, my body as filthy as a mechanic’s, my face as blackened as a coal miner’s. I blend right into those plants. I could be lost for days before being discovered. But I’ve become pretty expert—if I do say so myself (and I do)—at taming wild tomatoes. All the farm employees have at one time or another thanked me for making their harvest easier. In fact, not only do I have a shot at good karma, I have a reason to get up in the morning.

I also have a new pair of glasses. Red-framed. Tomato red. The color seemed appropriate. I think of them as my Sunday-go-to-meeting glasses and wear my black-rimmed pair out in the farm. But I’m thinking of switching to red glasses when I’m tying the worst of the tomato rows. That way, if I can’t free myself from the grasp of a particularly gnarly plant, maybe one of the girls will reach for my tomato-red eyewear while searching out the ripest fruit, and rescue me.

They need me, you know.