Life lessons in 3-inch pot full of tomato starts

There is a lesson in the overstuffed three-inch container in the accompanying photograph. It may not fulfill any of the official New York State Education Department learning standards or make an appearance in official state curriculum. It’s next to impossible to imagine squeezing anything about it into a standardized test. And still, we would submit that the lesson is among the most important that we can share with our students.

Of course the lesson, like all the hands-on learning opportunities the Vegetable Project seeks to create, is not well suited to our current situation, holed up in our homes to minimize contact with other people. It might not even make sense without the actual experience the lesson comes wrapped in. Still, here is a shot at explaining.

But first, please understand that we start tomatoes indoors in this part of the world to give them a longer growing season than nature provides. And while there is no right number of seeds to put in a container, most of us would try not to sow quite as many as we did on March 31. We need to disentangle delicate hair-thin roots if we want to get seedlings into their own containers, which we typically do before putting young plants into the soil. And it’s extra difficult when the seedlings are packed in.

Then, please accept, because it’s true, that we do not know what kind of tomato plants we have here. The scrawling on the envelope that we stored them in was not very helpful. The only words were “Tomato Albany High 2016.” We must have scooped seeds from one or more than one tomato grown at Albany High School four years ago. But we presumably failed to keep track over the course of the summer of the variety that we were growing. Maybe writing on a plastic marker faded in the sun. Maybe the marker washed away in a heavy rain. Or maybe one of a dozen other possibilities happened.

Anyway, seeds do not remain viable forever. So dumping all the four-year-old seeds into a container wasn’t entirely illogical. Surely, no more than a fraction of the four-year-old seeds would germinate. Except that sometimes many more than a fraction do, as we witnessed in this particular case.

So the lesson here, and it’s really a life lesson, comes when separating plants a couple of weeks after starting the seeds. And it’s a good lesson even when we prudently put just three or four seeds in a container. The lesson, viewed narrowly, is that we need to work really carefully and patiently and intently to untangle the roots that have wound around one another. More broadly, of course, is that most of life’s big ambitions also require care and patience and determination and attention to detail and so forth. But the possible rewards for careful and patient effort and sticking with it are great.

And then, maybe still more important than the message is the prospect that the tactile experience of working those slender tomato plant roots apart will really demonstrate what “carefully” and “patiently” and “intently” mean. Sorry to say, but our partner schools’ lessons do not typically include experiences that support such messages.

For the record, we took 26 plants out of the overstuffed container. It will take quite some amount of care and patience to nurture these tiny tomato starts, or at least some of them, until they grow into mature and sturdy fruit-bearing plants in the months ahead. Like much about their future, the pale green color of their leaves is worrisome. They might need nutrient. We gave them a smidgeon of liquid Dr. Earth fertilizer. But again like so much else, that is tricky. Too much for very young plants can do considerable harm.

Of course, 26 healthy plants could produce quite a bounty! And wouldn’t it be great for students to experience the results of careful and patient work, rather than just hearing and reading about it? Wouldn’t that make the lesson especially meaningful?

We will keep you posted on the progress of these plants.

–Bill Stoneman

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