Tomato seedling clones ready to be re-potted. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Building on the knowledge of the past

The great tragedy of death is not that life ends but that knowledge is lost.

By Mary Lowther

The great tragedy of death is not that life ends but that knowledge is lost. We spend our allotted span accumulating skills and (hopefully) wisdom that, aside from the snippets of information we manage to slip into our grandchildren along with generous servings of tea and cookies, leave the world with us. Unless, that is, we actually write stuff down.

Over the years David has collected an entire room full of histories and memoirs through which the authors tried to pass along their knowledge and prejudices in real time. When we met he had two rooms of books, but he had to make space for yours truly, leading to a truly heroic period of triage, an attic full of boxes and a nice credit account with Russel’s Books. He argues that without these contemporary accounts we would have no understanding of how our elders saw the world in real time.

That’s all well and good, and it keeps him busy, but my preference is for the practical arts. The best recipes, after all, are those found hand written on the back pages of old cookbooks; and old gardeners can save us years of trial and error if only we bother to read them. In his De Re Rustica Lucius Junius Columella left us his agricultural experience in 12 volumes, preserving the best methods practiced by Roman farmers during the first century, with reference to many other writers whose works have been lost.

How much satisfaction would Lucius Junius derive from knowing that his knowledge has been preserved, built upon and augmented by others, arming future gardeners (that’s us!) with the knowledge and desire to continue learning? How grateful we should be that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every spring?

That being said, we should not forget the thousand generations of agriculturalists whose lore was passed down only by word of mouth, whose work graces almost every meal we eat. Take tomatoes, for example, or corn and coffee. When the Conquistadors stumbled onto the New World they found a thriving agricultural community in the Central and Southern Americas. These peoples were thriving on crops never seen by Europeans before, and nightshade crops at that. While Europeans had considered nightshade poisonous, these cultures had developed vegetables like potatoes, peppers and tomatoes as staples in the indigenous diet for centuries. Sadly, if there was an Aztec or Incan Columella, his or her work was lost in the general destruction of the conquest; all we have left is the food itself.

Tomatoes, once as small as blueberries, were cultivated by these farming pioneers over generations, the knowledge passed from elder to child. Thanks to these unknown benefactors, when I cut new shoots from tomato plants last fall I knew to take them from new growth in the crotches of the stem and to choose plants whose qualities I want to propagate. If there is an afterlife I hope those forgotten native farmers have a chance to compare notes with Lucius Junius, Jethro Tull and Thomas Coke.

Let us not forget those tomato cuttings; of the 12 tomato suckers I planted in pots, six have survived. I brought them inside the house where it’s warmer and placed them in a sunny window. I’ve repotted them once and now the roots are starting to grow out the bottom of the pots, they’ll need repotting again. Since tomato stems produce new roots when they are buried and since these seedlings are quite leggy, I’ll transfer them into deep pots.

Sadly, I’ve run out of potting soil and must make more. I really don’t want to go outside and chop out some frozen compost for the potting soil and I’m cursing myself for not making more last fall when it was nice and warm. I’ve also lost the labels for these clones so I’m in for a surprise when they fruit. In that imagined afterlife I am certain that those experts are shaking their heads and sadly telling each other how they warned me about this.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

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