Pruning Tomatoes and Hearts

I remember chasing after my grandmother into the garden when I was a young girl. I would kick off my shoes in the grass at the edge of the garden, just so my feet could sink into the soft, powdery dirt my grandfather had just tilled. I would follow at the hem of my grandmother’s skirt watching it swoosh in her shadow at the tips of my bare toes.

I wanted to play in the dirt. I wanted to sift the soil through my fingers and watch the dust cloud burst up, transparent, toward the sunbeams streaming down.  But the garden wasn’t a place to play and I knew the etiquette. If you ventured inside the square half acre of strategically designed dirt rows you better be prepared to sweat. What grew inside that square fed three families and a handful of neighbors that feasted off the extra. That bounty fed us well into the winter.

My grandmother was Irish and strong. She was small but mighty. She had a great sense of adventure and took me on my first hike when she was seventy years old. It wasn’t an easy hike either. She took me down a holler and led me into the woods and up over a ridge. Then she insisted that she was lost and that I would have to help her find our way out.

She abided by, “The early bird gets the worm,” like it was scripture. Mornings at her house meant coffee was brewing by 6:00 a.m. even on Saturday, and especially on Sunday. Pork tenderloins were fried up in her cast iron skillet every morning, served with pone bread and gravy made from scratch. There were no snooze buttons and no sleeping in at Granny’s house. I dreaded that the most in my teen years. But, oh, what I would give to have her here today to wake me to a steaming hot breakfast made by her long, slender hands.

Swap and Shop was always on the AM radio station on her little black radio in the kitchen. Swap and Shop was like Craigslist today but better because the radio DJ would tell you all about the items for sale in our local town like it was a story.

Summers at Granny’s house were always filled with adventure. I don’t recall ever feeling bored. I learned how to shoot a gun, clean fish, and skin a rabbit. I was taught how to properly crack black walnuts to harvest the most nutmeat for her delightful fudge. We picked red raspberries, wild strawberries, and blackberries for making jam. I learned how to make jam and can tomatoes and peppers. We made apple butter in a copper kettle. We would take turns stirring it with a long-handled wooden spoon over an open fire outside. I remember how my arms would ache stirring that butter for an hour at a time. I keep returning to these memories. They are like the lighthouse when I am on stormy seas.

This year I decided to dig my hands deep into the dirt and plant three garden beds. It isn’t the half-acre garden my grandmother raised thirty years ago, but it is life giving in more ways than I anticipated. My oldest son wanted carrots in his garden. My youngest son asked for sugar snap peas and cucumbers. They both insisted on spinach to my great delight. I so enjoyed watching their small hands plant those seeds. However, I did get carried away with planting heirloom tomatoes for myself. I tried my hand at them last year and I wasn’t very successful. So this year I over-planted just in case one plant tanked. The one thing I grieve at the end of every summer is the loss of homegrown heirloom tomato sandwiches.

My next-door neighbor is a teacher, and she receives plant donations from the Amish community for her classroom. This year she had extra plants so she donated to my little garden. One of the plants she donated was a tomato plant. Neither one of us had any idea what type of tomato that I stuck in the ground. It was a mystery tomato plant. This beautiful little mystery has overtaken almost the entirety of one raised bed. It is tied up to five bamboo stakes to keep it from falling over. Five! The fruit is abundant.

I don’t know much about pruning. I am learning as I go. But I do remember my grandmother teaching me to prune the suckers and break off the branches with yellow leaves so the plant would be healthy and bear more fruit.  If I dare let two days pass before checking the garden I will find the tomato plants overrun with suckers. It has become a daily routine to go out to the garden and check the tomatoes and prune the vines.

This process of pruning has brought me to introspectively survey my heart. Each morning as I wade through the dewy grass to the garden I feel my heart being stirred. These early mornings standing beneath the silver light of the sun have become holy. I am reminded of the scripture in the book of John and how every branch that does not bear fruit must be taken away. Also, that every branch that does bear fruit must be pruned so that it may bear more fruit.

As I break off the branches with yellow leaves that are not bearing fruit and trim back new suckers I think about the areas in my heart that need pruning. It is a daily undertaking to prune my heart.  It has taken humility to admit the branches that I need to break off. Just as my garden needs water so as not to be scorched by the midday sun, my heart needs to be fed with truth so I will not wither beneath the hardships of life.

Life is hard, but I don’t want to let it harden me. I must be intentional to keep my heart soft. I have to tend to it daily as I do my garden. If I neglect my heart, hateful words will spew from it filled with criticism and judgment, just like the weeds that will choke out the plants in the garden. Instead of my labor being an honor of sacrifice for the greater good, my filter will get skewed and I will see it as a burden. I need this pruning of the heart as much as the very breath that I take deep into my lungs. It isn’t comfortable and often it is painful. But the daily examination of my heart is necessary so that I bear fruit and bear it abundantly.

My mornings in the garden have led me to ask myself if the words that I speak are life-giving like the plants that are growing there. I am sure you have heard of biblical fasting from food. Well the thought occurred to me to fast from the words I speak that don’t bear fruit. It has grown a deep awareness of the weeds in my soul.

We all have them. Weeds. But every season brings with it a need for pruning so that the harvest will be abundant. I now have more tomatoes than I can possibly eat. It excites me to know that soon I will get to bless more than just our family with the harvest. But there is greater anticipation about the fruit my words can bear and the harvest that my children can reap from the pruning of their momma’s heart.

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