It was back in 1965 when Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson did their now-famous experiment about the effect that teacher expectations have on student performance. They gave an intelligence test to a whole schoolful of elementary school students, and then told their teachers that 20% of them were marked for extraordinary intellectual growth and achievement in the coming year – “spurters,” they were called.
They named the 20%, which were, of course, chosen at random. At the end of the year, though, the spurters showed significantly more improvement than their peers. Their teachers’ expectation of better performance seemed to result in actual better performance. Rosenthal and Jacobson called this phenomenon “the Pygmalion effect,” and published their results in their 1968 book, Pygmalion in the Classroom.
Well, if it works for third-graders, I figure it’ll work for tomatoes.
Kevin decided that, rather than using tomato cages, which are difficult to get into rocky soil and insufficient to the support requirements of large tomato plants, this year he would build a trellis for our 24 plants. Our friend Ed has a big bamboo patch in his back yard, and he generously donated a landscape trailer full for the trellising effort.
One day last week I was out running errands, and Kevin was putting the finishing touches on a tomato trellis a good ten feet high. Ten feet!
“That’s a big trellis,” I said.
“Last year, our biggest plants were easily this tall,” said Kevin.
And it’s true. Last year, our biggest tomato plants were ten feet tall. I think that’s why we got a decent tomato crop despite getting the blight, which starts and the bottom of a plant and works its way up. It takes a while from blight to climb ten feet.
So, this year, we’re quite literally setting the bar high. I’m thinking that the tomatoes, seeing that bar, will understand what’s expected of them and strive for achievement. Pygmalion in the Garden.
You may think that’s far-fetched, but I don’t think it’s less reasonable than some other gardening theories out there. Take companion planting, for example. Can you seriously believe that your corn will grow better if it has a pet parsley? And then there’s this crazy biodynamic theory that says – I kid you not – you should determine when to plant, cultivate, and harvest by the phase of the moon.
Gardening lends itself to crackpot theories because it’s profoundly mysterious. Every year, some things thrive and some things fail, and they’re never the same things, and it’s never for the same reasons. Humans are hard-wired to look for causality, but it’s hard to find in nature because there are simply too many variables.
I like problems with well-defined parameters and one correct solution. A quadratic equation, say, or a crossword puzzle. Problems that involve nature aren’t like that.
I like problems with well-defined parameters and one correct solution.
And it’s not just gardening. Look at fishing. Fish behavior is a function of water temperature, salinity, the presence of food, the tide, the weather, the fish’s birthplace, the sea bottom terrain, and, for all I know, the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But, even if you know all those things, you can’t predict fish behavior with certainty because there are other factors that we don’t even know enough to consider. And that’s even if fish don’t have free will, or enjoy sightseeing.
Gardening, though, is even worse. Trying to figure out how to make a plant thrive is hopelessly complicated because everything from tiny insects to global warming seems to affect what grows and what doesn’t.
Sometimes, you can isolate a problem. Last year, like everyone else in New England, we got the late blight on our tomatoes. The slugs found the collards. The chickens dead-headed the fennel. I get that. But why did nothing grow in a whole strip on the left side? Why was the garlic so puny? And the potatoes – they didn’t even sprout.
The eggplant and squash, though, did well. And the basil we planted in every available space delivered all summer. Why, why, why?
It’s so hard to get at the truth of gardening that I understand why we grasp at causal straws like the phase of the moon. I’m almost ready to start praying to the ancient pagan god of gardening, assuming there is one.
First, though, we’re trying soil amendments. We seemed to have a pattern of leggy plants with a sub-optimal foliage-to-fruit ratio, which, I’m given to understand, is a symptom of too much nitrogen. So we tilled in phosphate and greensand to beef up the P and the K of the N-P-K. We got three yards of compost from Watts Family Farm, which is said to have the most nutrient-rich compost on Cape Cod.
This year, the sugar snap peas I lovingly started from seed in the cold frame looked like jute twine with a couple of yellowish leaves glued on until they died altogether. The eggplant, usually insect-free, has depressingly lacy leaves. The fennel and beet seeds, which I planted directly in the garden, have produced anaemic little seedlings that hold little promise.
Is it the N? The P? The K? The Dow Jones Industrial Average? Damned if I know.
One bright spot, though, is the potatoes. Kevin planted two kinds – Kennebec that we ordered from a fancy-pants organic catalog, and fingerlings we bought from Costco and left too long in the bin. Both kinds seem to be thriving and the Kennebec, in particular, have sent up big thick stems that Kevin mounded soil and mulch around.
The leaves are, so far, almost free of insect damage. The flowers are just beginning to bloom. We don’t know what the crop looks like, of course, and it could be that we have all leaf and no tuber, but it’s reassuring just to see the nice big patch of healthy green.
Is it the weather? The sunlight? The compost? The companion garlic?
My theory is that it’s my husband, who’s full-blooded Irish. Centuries of subsistence farming have encoded an indigenous understanding of the variables of potato growing into the Irish genome, and so it’s quite reasonable for him to expect much of them.
So, what explains last year’s crop failure, you may ask.
Damned if I know.
But if you need help with the crossword puzzle, I’m your man.