Murder in the 32nd Degree

In the pine tree on the north side of the greenhouse, a solitary chickadee wheezed out a sad and lonely, “Chee-dee-dee!” I stepped into the building and examined the rows of plants before me. Bright green parsley, healthy rosemary, thyme and oregano peeked out from behind billows of ruffle-leafed kale.

In another row, waves of pink and purple petunias tried to outdo the colorful yellow, orange and purple mounds of chrysanthemums. The canna, calla and amaryllis lilies were finished blooming for the year, but their healthy leaves were fattening up to store energy for next year’s blossoms.

One sixty-four-foot row was planted entirely in tomatoes. Most plants were huge and vibrantly green, covered with fruit of all sizes and stages of ripening. Six black krim tomato plants, an heirloom variety, were covered with yellow blossoms despite the heavy harvest they’d already given this summer.

Usually night-time frost kills my garden plants at the end of September. The killing frost almost always happens by the end of the first week of October, but not this year. Here it was October 25th, only two months before Christmas, and the plants were still bright and fresh.

Slowly pulling on a pair of black nitrile gloves, I walked purposefully toward the tomatoes. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do! For the sake of having a clean garden next spring, I was about to commit plant murder! Was it a breeze coming in the building’s open side flaps that made the tomato leaves quiver?

I rationalized my plan to commit veggie-cide, thinking, “The big freeze will probably be coming one of these days to kill them anyway.” Wading through foliage to get near the cage holding up the first plant in the row, I sat down on my garden stool. Using a tree-limb pruner, I began to cut off branches one at a time. After each snip, I removed the big tomatoes to ripen in the house, then pulled the denuded vegetation to a pile.

The size of the tomato plants was amazing. Each row is thirty-six inches apart, but since August the only way to walk on either side of the plants was to hop from one small open space to another. In awe, I thought, “These tomatoes grew as if in a steamy rainforest jungle, fertilized by exotic zoo-poo!”

Starting at the top, each limb I cut off was as fat as the base of my thumbs. Some branches were so long they sagged to the ground, sprouting air roots! The girth of the main tomato stumps were hard to measure. From ground level on up, extra branches had grown out in every direction.

Despite the cool afternoon, I was soon bathed in sweat. I thought, “I feel like I’m cutting down oak trees, not twenty-two tomato plants!”

The last step was to push a shovel into the earth next to the tomato stumps and pull them out of the ground. Their roots unsettled the ground up to three feet away before the hairy, tentacle snapped. Who knows how much longer they had invaded the soil?

That evening I told my daughter Tammie, “In all the years I’ve gardened, I’ve never had to cut down green plants to put my garden to bed for the winter. Frost is what usually kills the plants, then I go clean up the mess! That’s the way it should be.”

Tammie consoled, “You just did what you had to do.”

Still feeling I’d betrayed the happy, healthy plants I’d nurtured for the last five months, I pondered, “So it was either the frost or me. Does this mean that I’ve committed murder in the 32nd degree?”




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