Confessions of a First-Time Gardener

Follow the highs and lows of a first-time gardener and their experience planting tomatoes. Learn about the mistakes they made and how they learned to improve.

Two young gardeners discuss their first gardening season.

I love looking at plants, reading about plants, and thinking about plants, but when it comes to actually getting my hands in the dirt, I am a complete wimp.

So you will understand my fear when, one Saturday, my husband came home with a backseat full of little green plants. He had decided to plant a vegetable garden.

Despite our modest success with a single geranium and a pot of herbs, I had my doubts about this plan. What did we know about gardening? Wouldn't it be wiser to plant in pots rather than our untested soil?

"Do you think we can fit the tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage in these two beds?" John asked as he attacked the soil with a shovel.

"I'll just go look that up," I said. I fled to the comfort of the indoors, intimidated by the thought of digging up half the backyard to plant things we had plenty of experience eating but zero experience growing.

I got a little distracted in my quest for planting instructions, because I delight in learning new words, like umbel and fish emulsion. But I did my research and reported back to my husband, who had by then manually tilled the entire planting area. "Did you know that parsley is a member of the carrot family?" I asked, hoping my research, with a little trivia thrown in, could serve as my contribution. But yes, I did help with the planting, and yes, dirt does wash off.

Weeks passed, and we faithfully watered and fertilized all of our plants. The four cabbage plants were an early casualty—cabbageworm, we think—and the pepper plants bloomed but did not fruit. (We're still figuring out the several ways we might have gone wrong with them.)

The tomato plants, however, continued to grow. In a hopeful mood, John bought tomato cages, which we carefully installed. Soon after, we noticed the appearance of dainty yellow flowers. This seemed promising, but we held off fantasizing about BLTs and fresh mozzarella with tomato slices and basil—from our own pot of herbs!—until we began to see the little green knobs of baby tomatoes.

I was watering the plants one morning when I spotted the first tiny tomatoes, and it was with great restraint that I kept from calling John home from work to see them. As it turned out, he was so excited to see the tomatoes that afternoon that I thought maybe I should have called.

And then tragedy struck. As our first tomatoes ripened, they also grew great, ugly, rotten spots. I did a little more research and diagnosed a clear case of blossom end rot. Our gorgeous tomatoes—sabotaged! And by whom? By us!

A few days later, John and I went out of town for a week. "Oh, well," we said, "guess we don't have to worry about leaving our tomatoes after all." I felt the occasional stab of remorse when eating someone else's homegrown tomatoes, but time was already busying about its healing work.

We returned home on a Saturday afternoon to find a number of newly ripened tomatoes, and before we even unloaded the car, John trudged over to the tomato bed to collect them. And wonder of wonders, the tomatoes were without blemish! John rolled the perfect orbs in his hands, anxious to locate the offending rot, but it simply was not there. Our mouths hung open as our brains struggled to process the unbelievable sight. And then John began to dance.

We have since enjoyed daily homegrown tomato consumption. Our four plants continue to produce beautiful fruit, the result of basically dumb luck. Now we have several seasons to plot a more informed strategy for next summer's garden—and probably just a few weeks before John comes home from the hardware store with a backseat full of plants for a fall garden.