If, and a big "if," I hadn't been preoccupied with other things, I would have yanked this plant out of the dirt in its seedling stage without a second thought. At that stage of its growth it would have looked to my unobservant eye like any other weedseedling.
This evening as happenstance settled in, I gazed awestruck at a tomato plant -- variety unknown, with its second set of trueleaves, and about 4 inches tall. Its leaves waved in the breeze above other weeds sprouting on top of this cold compost pile contained by a welded wire cage.
A few feet from this compost pile another wire cage enclosed a combination of shredded plant materials that had melted down another foot since I had checked it a few weeks before. Once stacked as high as the cold pile when I built it in January, this mixture of carbon and nitrogen materials generated chemical reactions and natural processes heating to a temperature as high as 140 to 160 degrees.
More than a few times on a cold day curiosity compelled me to dig my gloved hand as deep into the pile as I could. About a foot into the pile, the heat was unbearable.
Serendipity. A feeling of satisfaction as a good mixture of browns -- carbon -- and greens -- nitrogen -- decomposed into rich dark brown compost. Seeds of any type should not survive inside this properly decomposing compost pile.
A cold compost pile on the other hand leaves room for nature to take its course. Seeds and disease can survive to thrive in this environment. Here, an unidentified tomato seed sprouted on top of a pile that had never heated to a temperature as high as its neighbor. This pile had always been nitrogen heavy built from grasses and weeds pulled from the garden and dumped one load after another into a pile stacked more out of convenience than by design.
Instead of melting down into usable earthy smelling compost, this pile went anaerobic. An airless mess of weeds turned into a rotting ooze of stinking slime. Some say don't compost weeds. Well, I wasn't; I just wasn't sure what to do with them other than to get them out of the way. So the pile rotted. Slowly.
Through this rot a tomato seed survived a winter with more snow than we care to remember. This seed survived a move of this partially-decomposed mess of weeds from a ragged pile into a wire compost bin more than 100-feet away. It survived turn and mix of its contents in early March from another bin into this bin where it now grew.
This seed survived.
Serendipity. One plant.
What can one plant do?
Last summer a lone cucumber plant sprouted in one of the raised bed boxes after surviving garden cleanup. A cucumber plant is easy to spot. Its first true leaf rests at the end of a stem that looks like it's reaching for the sky while a tendril searches for something to grab as it grows.
This plant grew into a vine reaching at least 12-feet long, maybe longer that climbed through and around three tomato cages: each 5-feet tall and made of rebar mesh. Its leaves by mid-summer shaded this planting box, a square 6-feet to a side. It blossoms set fruit throughout the summer.
We picked cucumbers. Many were added to salads. The extras were preserved. I canned seven quarts of dill pickle slices -- Miss Em's favorite -- and seven more quarts of sweet pickles slices -- my favorite. A hot bath canner can hold seven quart jars per batch.
This lone vine was the only cucumber plant in the garden last summer. Bugs or disease got the other plants I deliberately planted.
Across the path in a box of the same size, a lone tomato plant sprouted. What turned out to be a German Queen variety produced tomatoes until the first freeze in November when its last few green tomatoes were preserved into pint jars of relish and chutney. A mid-winter garnish of green tomato chutney on field peas with a side of corn bread makes the sweat equity invested in the garden worthwhile.
This lone tomato plant, variety unknown, that I found on top of a cold compost pile this spring will be transplanted into the tomato patch. I figure it came from one of the tomato plants planted in the garden last year -probably Cherokee Purple, Russian Black, Beefsteak, Mountain Pride, or German Johnson -- all varieties that Miss Em favors. Whatever variety, I am sure it will be tasty and pass the Miss Em taste test.
To learn more about varieties of vegetables and flowers to plant in your garden, information is available at the University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences website: http: //www.caes.uga.edu/publications/, or contact the Bartow County Extension Office, 320 W. Cherokee Ave., Cartersville, 770-387-5142.
Jim Humphreys is a Bartow Master Gardener Intern. He has been gardening in Euharlee since the 20th Century.