Beyond the Paper Screen / Buying Tomato Plants Might be Just the Thing to End a Long, Dreary Winter

A trip to Costco is an event in itself. In my very first visit to one of their gigantic wholesale stores, I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of goods stacked up to the ceiling. After two hours of struggle through the maze of shelves and bins with an oversized shopping cart, I walked away, exhausted, with $200 worth of merchandise I didn’t need. I know better now. In my last trip on a miserably overcast first day of March, I got there early, found a good parking spot, and went inside clutching my shopping list. I started maneuvering my cart purposefully toward my first stop, the sporting goods section, to look for tennis balls. Then, I saw them — sandwiched between the stacks of giant cooler boxes and the piles of bath towels — massive shelving units loaded with green plants. “Edible 3 Pack — $11.99,” cheerfully declared the sign.

Costco’s timing would have been impeccable in a normal year. By the first week of March (which is also my spring break) the winter cold usually gives way to a mild spring weather in my part of California and the planting season begins in earnest. This year, however, it rained cats and dogs through the week, even snowed one day, dashing my hopes of doing some gardening to get ready for the growing season. Here I was, instead, looking pathetically at tomato plants in Costco and thinking about the sorry state of my raised bed garden, which badly needs cleaning and fertilizing for the new growing season.

Indeed, it has been a long, cold and rainy winter in Southern California this year. Our winter is never that long or cold in the larger scheme of things, but it is all relative to what we are used to. It’s all in the numbers: Between 2020 and 2022 in San Bernardino County, California, we had 20 or more sunny days in the month of February, the rainiest months of the year. This February, by contrast, we had only 10. Average daytime temperature in February: 67-69 F [19-21 C] in 2020-22, as opposed to 58 F [14 C] this year. By the first week of March, we typically see daytime temperatures go up to the 60s and 70s [16-26 C]; this year it was mostly in the 40s and 50s [4-15 C].

But there’s more than just the weather pattern that made this winter seem longer and harder for many of us. Even though COVID appears to be less of a threat now, the virulent strains of flu more than picked up the slack and made a lot of people very sick for the good part of this season. Respiratory syncytial virus, which used to affect only young children, is now a serious infectious disease for adults and may take four weeks or more to fully recover from. I caught something, too, during the holiday break, and was astonished to find the flu and cold medicine almost entirely sold out at the drug store near my home.

Then, there’s the troubled post-pandemic economy. There are no more stimulus checks forthcoming, and forgiveness extended during the pandemic has long expired. We were told that inflation, which began during the pandemic, was under control, but now, a recession is a real possibility. Fuel prices have come down somewhat, but natural gas prices have skyrocketed in California due to unexpectedly high demand, forcing many families to turn down, or even turn off entirely, their furnace for the rest of the winter.

So, we all put on a heavy sweater and sit in an unheated house, listening to the icy rain hit the windowpanes and watching the internet news of upcoming layoffs, the continuing war in Ukraine, the poor handling of the train derailment and chemical leak in East Palestine, Ohio, politicians bickering about the burden of educational loans on younger generations, and millions of people stranded in winter storms, without food or electricity, in the Western and Southern states.

I look at the tomato plants on the shelves again. These nursery plants have been raised in a hothouse and will need to acclimate to outdoor conditions. It’ll be a few weeks, even a month, before I can plant them in my garden. Gardening experts would surely tell me to wait. If I buy them now, I’ll need to keep them in the container, put them out in the sun during the day and bring them under the porch roof to shield them from the cold at night. If they outgrow their containers, I might even need to transplant them into bigger pots while getting the garden ready. It’s going to take a bit of TLC if I want them to thrive. I should just walk away.

But something tells me to defy the conventional wisdom, so I pick the three best-looking plants to take home with me. The rain begins to sprinkle as I walk toward my car, and for just a moment, I regret my decision. But then, I renew my resolve. It might be just the thing I need at the end of a long, dreary winter, to take a chance and bring bright new life into my garden. At the least, the $12 investment will keep me occupied for a few weeks and give me something to look forward to other than the next dreadful news to hit the internet.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.