The Gambler
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The Gambler

By Maria Daddino

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em ...”

Lately, the words from that old Kenny Rogers song keep haunting me. And it’s no wonder, for I had, unbelievably for me, actually decided to give up my vegetable garden.

For years, the undisputed stars of my vegetable garden have been the many varieties of heirloom tomatoes that I grow. These wonderful “seeds of yesteryear” come from all over the world: Costoluto Genovese from Italy, Dona from France, Cherokee Purple from early Americana and, one of my all-time favorites, Mortgage Lifter.

The latter comes with a tale: It seems the bank was about to foreclose on an Amish farmer’s land when he discovered an extremely prolific seedling that produced huge, delicious tomatoes. He sold so many tomatoes that first year and so many plants the next year, so the story goes, that he was able to pay off his mortgage and live fiscally sound and happily ever after!

My early vegetable gardens had to withstand the onslaught of my three energetic boys, my collies, and my sons’ many friends.

Years later, in my Bay Shore garden, the ducks loved the tender green leaves and the succulent baby vegetables. And whatever they did not eat, they sat on—rubbing the seedlings into the soil and into oblivion.

When I moved to East Quogue, I designed a proper “American kitchen garden,” replete with a 4-foot-high fence and an arbor entrance. And, for several years, things seemed to be going along fine ... until this summer.

It started out just like every other. My lovingly grown-from-seed and stocky little seedlings—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, zucchini and basil—matured, flowered and set the tiniest fruits.

I could hardly wait. My mouth watered for the taste of that first ripe tomato ... red-and-yellow with basil and virgin olive oil ... Italian sweet peppers slowly sautéed in olive oil ... grilled white-and-pinkstriped eggplants ... and, of course, my wonderfully aromatic zucchini bread.

Unbeknownst to me, high in the trees and deep in the woods there were eyes watching and mouths watering for a sweet taste of an heirloom tomato. Somewhere out there visions of baby gourmet “sugarplums” were dancing around in heads other than mine!

My first inkling that something was amiss came early one morning when I saw deer prints around my raspberries. Evidently, my “resident” doe thought nothing of jumping over a few obstacles, like a fence and a 5-foot-tall willow screen. But she did bring her twin fawns for me to admire, and for that thrill I would give her anything. And besides, I told myself, she wasn’t eating all that much.

Then came George, the groundhog, who constructed his “McMansion” in my herb garden and jauntily strutted down the woodchip path with a baby pepper dangling from his mouth.

To add insult to injury, the orioles, catbirds and grackles found that a quick stab to a perfectly ripe tomato made for a much tastier drink than a sip from the birdbath.

The last straw was the afternoon that I found Mama Turkey and her six babies on top of the tomato ladders happily discovering the joys of homegrown heirlooms.

So, this year, as I brought in my very meager harvest, did I complain about the fact that my “wild friends” had a more bountiful harvest than I? Did I bemoan the fact that I was not able to pick an “unstabbed” tomato until Labor Day? Did I decide to throw in the towel and convert my vegetable garden into an old-fashioned rose garden, thorns and all?

Yes, yes and yes!

And then, as I tasted my first tomato and the sweetness of it overwhelmed me, I quickly forgot about “The Gambler’s” words and began mentally tweaking next year’s “wildlife-proof” vegetable garden!

 Maria Daddino contributes the column “From Fourth Neck” for The Southampton Press Western Edition.

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