Monday, July 16, 2007

The Not-So-Cute Runt

Just as the garden has its monster plants that grab everyone else’s space, it also has those small fry that fail to thrive—for a while, at least. Sometimes it’s easy to figure them out and find a cure for what ails them, but more often they produce nothing but frustration.

I first learned about the concept of runts from children’s books like Charlotte’s Web and The Hundred and One Dalmatians. The runt, in the shape of a tiny piglet or a warm, furless puppy, sounds cute and cuddly, ready to be rescued by any reasonably sensitive, loving child. It’s (literally) the underdog, the one you root for because it has so much spirit for its diminutive size. Stories about runts are inevitably ones of overcoming adversity, of internal goodness coming through, and of unexpected triumph.

But plants that are runts are far from cute. They’re just undergrown, maybe diseased or yellowing, or possibly just weak and spindly. It’s hard to love a plant that won’t put forth new leaves and stems, especially if you’ve planted only a few of its kind. Until this past week, one of my two Green Zebra tomato plants was giving me serious worries in that vein. Of the eight tomato plants I put into the garden, that one remained the smallest, and for a while, it seemed that it had hardly grown at all after I transplanted it. There was no explanation for why it was smaller than the others; its partner plant was keeping up with all the other varieties.

I treated that plant exactly the same as the others, if not better. I showered it with just a little more water (not too much, but enough to demonstrate a certain concern). I gave it the same amount of liquid fertilizer as the others, when I used the artificial stuff about four weeks ago. Nothing persuaded it to grow faster, though it showed no indications of ill health. Then, a few days ago, it began to pick up a little. It’s still on the small side, but it’s looking more and more like a real tomato plant, something that might produce a few juicy ones by summer’s end. My runt tomato still isn’t lovable, but at least it is no longer an object of worried speculation.

Others have not fared so well. My runt squash plant, as I have explained, fell victim to a vine borer and thus perished. The eggplant that survived a vicious rabbit attack which left it with a single emerging leaflet is still in its cage, waiting for the day its leaves become big enough to withstand a few bunny bites without disappearing entirely into the bunny’s bowels. Actually, all my eggplants can be considered runts, because none is exactly thriving. I’d like to think it’s just because they haven’t yet reached that critical point in the summer when the lengthening roots start stimulating new growth and flowering, but I don’t know whether that will ever happen.

One of the three Anaheim pepper plants that I planted in a group beneath a crape myrtle tree simply refuses to grow. It, too, is caged, because three bites from any creature would effectively end its existence . . . not that it would matter much at this point, because I doubt the thing will ever produce a pepper. It is half the size of its sisters, grown in nearly the same conditions. I’ve been wondering, though, if a wandering tree root might be making trouble for the little plant, stealing away its nutrients. If that’s the case, it’s too late to correct the problem. I might throw some fertilizer granules around it, or I might simply give up and let it live out its days as a reminder of Why You Shouldn’t Plant Around Trees.

Essentially, runts in the garden are mistakes, flops, failures. They’re not there just because nature made them so; it’s the gardener herself who is ultimately responsible for noticing the squash vine borer, the inadequate nutrition, the infernal bunnies, or the thieving tree root. It still bothers me that I could never figure out what was going on with that tomato. The squash vine bothers me even more, of course, being dead. It’s a lost opportunity. The pepper plant deflates my self-image each time I hose it down. At times like these, it’s best to look away from the runts and just stop wondering about them. Success is a far better motivator, even if it offers less food for thought.

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