Get growing: How gardens save us and a tomato for your quarantine

Get growing: How gardens save us and a tomato for your quarantine

Get growing: How gardens save us and a tomato for your quarantine

Gardening is an act of giving. Even if we harvest flowers or food from a plant, it’s a symbiotic dance in which we typically make the first step — the decision to tend and grow it.

There’s a funny side effect to gardening besides homegrown salads and bouquets: Taking care of other beings makes us feel better.

That reciprocal rebound of goodwill comes from thinking outside yourself, whether you are helping a neighbor, a charitable cause, a child, a pet or a row of carrot seeds.

Horticultural therapy programs abound now in senior centers and prisons to help the populations nurture their inner spirits by tending for plants.

In our quarantine away from the novel coronavirus, there are many ways we can tend ourselves and our communities by gardening.

Our lives and routines may be upended, but nature’s rhythms roll on. There’s something grounding about moving in harmony with the seasons. Acts like planting seeds or cutting spring flowers offer a tether to nature that we sorely need.

That yen for normalcy, and the desire to avoid supermarkets, has led to a new craze for gardening, especially edible gardening. As a result, there are shortages of seeds, plants and even chickens in Seattle and around the country.

If you are looking for garden supplies, keep checking in with local nurseries, many of whom are doing curbside pickups and remote ordering.

No matter how many years you tend it, a garden is never done. It’s always in motion. Plants get too big, some need dividing, some reproduce like rabbits, and our needs and tastes change. By necessity, you almost always have something to give away. So generosity comes embedded in gardening’s DNA. Our shared love of plants sends out roots of connection that bring us together.

Here are some experiences I’ve had during this strange spring, social distancing all the while:

My neighbor Anne put out her “Patty’s Purple” hebe bush trimmings in a 5-gallon bucket for anyone who wanted to try their hand at propagating. I did, so I emailed friends for rooting hormone, a powder that helps stem pieces take root. Joan dropped two kinds in my mailbox the next day.

Joan’s friend is starting a new garden, so Joan sent out the “Bat signal” for extra plants, so I’ll be digging some out soon. Editing my yard will help me recreate it with a more coherent design. (Also read: more plants!)

Kathy and I combined our two nursery seed orders to minimize shopping trips. Sonja, who moved away recently, made face masks for my whole family. In thanks, I weeded her Seattle rental’s garden.

Laura gave me two trunks full of composted chicken manure — which she dug and loaded herself to minimize contact. I donated her two kitchen-grown tomato seedlings.

While I have maybe 12 tomato seedlings going, Rachel grew hundreds in her garage — and not the common varieties at every big box store, but the good stuff. So naturally, she gave them all away during a three-hour pop-up posted on Facebook. She advised visitors by calling down from her porch.

I only took three of the allowed four — one for each family member — and passed two to Joan.

The only reason to mention that is that my husband would like the patio back, which for the last two summers was 95 percent tomato pots. So I am pacing myself.

The red beefsteak slicer I kept was intriguing; Rachel said her parents bought the seeds on a trip to Spain. It was said to be early — a huge bonus in our cool summers — and to boast a strong tomato flavor. A couple of reviewers felt it was a little too strong.

Its name is “Marmande Cuarenteno.” Hitting the internet, I found a lot for “Marmande,” not so much “Marmande Cuarenteno.”

What was “cuarenteno”? The Google translation was — wait for it — “quarantine.” What?!

I was hooked. This was an irresistible rabbit hole. The search for MC took me tunneling all around Europe.

Seed seller “Semilias Fitó,” writing via Messenger, confirmed my guess that MC is a Spanish-adapted selection of “Marmande,” a treasured French heirloom introduced to the public in 1897. Marmande village throws it a festival every summer.

Marmande was developed when another outbreak — a phylloxera aphid epidemic — caused local French winegrowers to abandon grapes for tomatoes in 1863, according to It may or may not be a cross between Ponderosa and Mikado.

“Cuarenteno,” it turns out, can also mean “of 40,” the number of days MC is said to go from flower to fruit in the coastal Valencia region of Spain.

Distinguished by its irregular shape, a squished globe with ribbed shoulders, descriptions say MC is a robust producer, especially in cool conditions. (Inner fist pump.)

As if ripped from the pages of a botanic telenovela, this tomato’s story comes laced with disaster and resurrection.

Once Valencia’s most popular tomato, MC almost went extinct. It vanished from the trade for over 60 years until 2008, when seeds were discovered in a Spanish farmhouse hiding in a dried pumpkin.

To bring this tomato back, the Italian slow food movement,, promoted the “best tomato in the world” with recipe contests while farmers and gardeners grew and saved the seed. After a few seasons, there was enough MC seed to reintroduce it to commerce — and Rachel’s parents.

So whichever histories, translations and marketing claims prove true, “Marmande Cuarenteno” will always be my quarantine tomato — one that reminded me of the generosity of gardening, a heartening sign of community when we needed it most.

— A lifelong gardener, Erica holds a Certificate in Landscape Design from The New York Botanical Garden, works at Ravenna Gardens and grew 45 tomato plants last year. She’s lived in Seattle since 2009.