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On green tomatoes, decay and Halloween

This was supposed to be a tweet, but it got a bit out of hand. Idle thoughts tend to, when I’m gardening. I suppose it’s having my hands and eyes occupied in a task that, whilst it needs my full attention, does not tax my concentration.

Not that I’ve been doing a lot of gardening this year, as will become apparent.

It started with the greenhouse tomatoes. The greenhouse has been rampant this year with carnivorous plants and cherry tomatoes, and I think it’s fair to say that the combination has caused, ahem, humidity issues. Since the tomatoes have also been prone to splitting* they barely ripened before they developed beards of mould, and it seemed best to cut our losses and rescue what we could. I haven’t grown cherry tomatoes before, so although I knew that tomatoes are really a kind of nightshade the similarity had never really been driven home. An afternoon cutting back the tangled, overgrown mass of vines and plucking from it alternately trusses of fruit that dripped with white goo and strings of green berries that reminded me forcibly of the most poisonous plant in the country gave me an unexpected willingness to think macabre thoughts about harmless salad fruits.

And then there were the garden tomatoes. There’s something remarkably forlorn about a vegetable garden gone wild. I suppose it’s the neglect of something that is usually so orderly, or the broken promises implicit in the disarray, and these had certainly gone wild. In the first place they were weedy cast offs, and in the second place they were allowed to overinvest in side shoots. Then it’s been a little damp, of course, and it seemed harmless enough to let the rather splendid petunias invade the tomato patch . . . so with one thing and another there was another tangled mass for me. I rapidly accumulated bowls of green tomatoes that I knew wouldn’t keep† and had no immediate plans for, but I knew I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. It’s in the bone, that.

This all happened a fortnight ago (I’ve been a little distracted making four types of tomato ketchup since then, and I never want to see a sieve again), so the other current running through my mind was about Halloween. We never really did Halloween when I was a child, but it’s something my in-laws go in for in a big way. I’m slightly mystified, if I’m honest, but happy to play along, and that means that I was picking my poor half rotten tomatoes with Halloween, and in particular the instruction to look out for paint ‘in sick colours’, in the back of my mind.

Now, when it comes to sick colours you’d be hard pressed to beat my tomatoes this year. Not the deep, honest green of sound, well-tended fruit caught out by the first frost, but the pallid off-whites of fruit dropped wastefully into wet undergrowth, suffused here and there with a sickly imitation of the first blush of sun ripened fruit. And as for the feely box – well cauliflower brains and rice grain maggots are all very well, but they can’t hold a candle to reaching for fruit and not knowing until you grasp it whether it’s sound or rotten . . .

So how much of Halloween, I wonder, is about the years that the harvest rotted in the field? Not my little patch of tomatoes that I could very well do without. Real crops. Years when the vagaries of nature or the cruelty of man have left whole harvests to go to waste. Years when the gleaners, rescuing what they could, were not decadent accountants with only their own inattention to blame for the waste, but the heartbroken and the starving.

Don’t misunderstand me, I know about the religious element, and all hallows, and the early church’s recognition of the need for a collective scream against the darkness of the year . . . but I wonder how much Halloween is the flip side of harvest festival, a reminder of why we should celebrate the bounty when we can.

Maybe we still need the reminder. Maybe we should pay it more heed. This year we have harvest festival, next year . . . Halloween?


* I am entirely aware that this is usually due to an erratic water supply; B has been in charge of watering and denies absolutely that this was the cause – who am I to argue?

† D’you know, it amazes me the number of people who either know what sort of childhood I had or know my parents now who have seen the need to tell me, over the last few weeks, that green tomatoes will ripen on the windowsill. Please trust me when I tell you that I know this perfectly well, and that these ones were in no fit state.


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