Olivia Kingery shares the three stages of her deep connection to growing tomatoes.
When I stood in front of the vegetables at the market, I felt bad for the struggling starters. The sweet potatoes webbed together in their small containers, already forming bulbs, which we would later pull out of the ground in bliss. The peppers wrinkled in the heat — their tips turning brown. Some produce were starving in shadows. I had to give them a better life, a fresh start, new soil. The Sungold tomatoes, even in their infancy, beckoned, telling stories of a tomato prophecy. I put them in the cart: cucumbers, corn, sweet potatoes, hot peppers, squash, zucchini, broccoli, Brussels sprouts; seeds of carrots, peas, beans; and cloves of garlic, hibernating over winter. I loved the Sungolds the most.
The beginning of summer was slow and tricky — either raining for days on end or starving us of water while the northern Michigan sun tried to reach the permafrost, which never thawed. Maybe this permafrost was in us all. I dreamed of the plants while I slept, whispering secrets at night, reaching roots taut, trying to touch each other. I worried they would get cold.
The sun rose; the plants grew. The Sungold smiled at me in the mornings. She flirted.
Inside the greenhouse, I covered myself with her leaves, planted myself next to her roots, and split my body open to give her water. In this incubator of love, she grew 16-feet tall — wrapping from me to the cucumbers to herself again. I grew with her.
If someone were to ask me the cure for loneliness, I would say a tomato plant. She holds your secrets in the walls of her cells, pulling love from your voice and changing it into energy. She multiplies, teaches you of duplicity and how to fall in love.
My favorite taste is a Sungold off the vine, warm from the sun, with small streaks of green on the cusp of under-ripe. Aren’t we all under-ripe? I would pull my shirt into a basket and harvest what seemed to grow overnight: handfuls of small, perfectly round tomatoes — the color of warmth, of a kiss, of love. Her limbs grew limbs until I couldn’t tell where she ended and the next plant began. She burrowed.
When I say she grew 16-feet tall, that’s just what she did. People gasped when they walked into the greenhouse — spoke in hushed tones. Her arms reached, begged, tried to swallow any space around her. She was searching, for what I will never know. I sang her songs that had no lyrics. We thrived.
She curled into herself as fall ate the last warmth of summer. There were other fruits and vegetables left. Brussels sprouts thrived after the first frost. Carrots had a remaining few weeks, hugging each other in the chilled earth. Peas pretended, sending false flowers, maybe as a sign of tribute — all hail the Sungold.
As I watched her die, I loved her still. I watered her until the frost ate at her core, lips, and fingers. I left her in the ground until the ground itself said, Please bury her properly. So when she finally let loose the dirt, the Brussels sprouts waving as she left, I cried. I gave her a proper burial.
I said a prayer of fruitful promise to return and begin again, planting her within myself. I laid her where the deer could find her, feeding themselves before winter, because I loved the deer, too. I could hear them whispering in the night, as well, telling secrets across generations, across species — telling the Sungold a prophecy, maybe one she already knew.