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"Guitar String Tight"

The past month has been a flurry of transplanting, with thousands of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and winter squash being popped from their greenhouse flats and anchored in the ground. Unlike radishes and peas, these main season crops will be with us a long time—until the first frost, if not longer—so a lot of effort goes into getting them off to the best possible start. The other day, as I surveyed the fields, I was reminded of an elementary school, filled with all the promise, vulnerability, and hardiness of youth. With the right combination of cultivation and faith, it won’t be long before these young plants mature into productive members of society.

Now that the tomatoes are beginning to grow tall, they need some form of support. For the home gardener, a simple tomato cage will do. On a larger scale, however, stringing between well-anchored posts is the preferred method. My first experience stringing tomatoes was as an apprentice in 2002. After a quick tutorial on how to weave the twine, the head grower left me and the other apprentices with a non-negotiable directive—guitar string tight. In other words, string the tomatoes as tight as you would a guitar, or don’t bother stringing at all. This meant keeping our bodies in a constant state of tension as we battled unwieldy leaves and boxes that insisted on unspooling more twine than we wanted. By the end of our rows, we were exhausted and perhaps inclined to slack off, but the stakes were clear—one round of sloppy stringing would come back to haunt us.

Sixteen years later, I’ve come to appreciate stringing as one of the most challenging and satisfying jobs on the farm, with many factors contributing to success. For starters, the rows should be perfectly straight, or tomatoes planted off-center risk being snapped or bypassed by the twine. But imperfect rows do happen, and that’s when guitar string tight does, in fact, become negotiable. In this case, an experienced grower will use the first stringing as an opportunity to gently coax the plants into line. For that reason, you wouldn’t teach a novice on the first stringing. Rather, you’d wait until the third or fourth round, when the plants have moved into line and are strong enough to withstand a beginner’s inevitable mistakes. These later rounds are also when you can insist on the guitar string tight standard. Hard as the job is, the satisfaction comes from growing comfortable in it—from knowing when to tense up and when to relax; from setting a good foundation upon which to teach others; from knowing when to demand perfection and how to handle imperfection.

Tomatoes are still a ways off, but there’s plenty to harvest now. As we close in on the solstice, we’re wrapping up our usual early-June frenzy of greens. Just like last year, the spinach, lettuce, and bok choy all loved the excessive spring rain. Beets, carrots, and zucchini are right around the corner, and we’ve begun picking the garlic scapes, which means garlic itself isn’t far off. Hallelujah! Last month I had to buy store garlic for the first time in years. Call me spoiled, but I was more than a little miffed.

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