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Garden Bully

            My Italian grandfather spent more time abusing his basil and tomato plants than he spent eating their savory leaves or their bright red fruit.  Each morning of my yearly two-week summer visit to Southeast Kansas he would pull me from sweet bed sheets to work alongside him in his substantial garden.  He’d stand, arms crossed, in front of a caged tomato.  “You have to discourage them,” he explained.  “Re-direct their energy.  If I gave a tomato plant a chance to vine, that’s all it would do.  And basil?”  He’d point an accusing finger at one of his small bushes.  “What a lazy plant!”  He’d bend, helping me to see how quickly basil wants to push up that finger of flowers, to produce thinner and thinner leaves and then go to seed.  “Tomatoes meander,” he’d say.  “Basil practically suicides.  So you bully them!”
            He showed me the tiny new leaves in the crotch of the tomato vine.  “You be the one who decides the tomato’s future,” he would say, pinching off the hopeful growth.  Soon, our fingers would be stained a pungent green.  Then we’d feel the stiff basil shaft beginning to lift toward flowers and we’d cut each one, not at the shaft, but two or more twin leaves down the stem.  My grandfather was relentless, ruthless, and expected the same of me, pinching and cutting each morning.  But his basil bushes formed into broad-leafed green globes.  No tiny white flowers were allowed, no icecaps on the north poles of his plants.  And his tomatoes filled their cages, squat and dense, with perfect red fruit.  “You have to be the boss,” he would remind me.  “You have to be smarter than your garden.”
            When he finally harvested tomato and basil, he would bring them tenderly into his kitchen and mix them with fresh mozzarella, splashes of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then sprinkle them with salt and pepper.  He would sit before them at the table, reverent, eyes nearly full of tears, for they were beautiful.  He would take a bite, savor the taste, finally swallow.  “God,” he would say, “I worship those plants.  You know I do.”   

"Garden Bully" first appeared in Little Balkans Review









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