Could that be early tomatoes tucked inside the warm insulation of water teepees in the Grier garden?
The answer is yes. The plants, set out Feb. 18, are planted well before the mid- to-late April frost that is normal in our area.
Matthews gardener James Grier, who brings fresh-veggie lovers a bounty of food during growing season, already has set out tomato plants in his acre-and-a-half garden along Sardis Road near the N.C. 51 intersection.
And he's got the attention of passers-by licking their lips in anticipation of the tomatoes to come.
"I was just messing around with these plants," said Grier, who has tended this garden since 1993. "I was bored between Christmas and New Year's, so I went down to the greenhouse and started about three dozen seeds just to have something to do."
Grier now has more than 900 tomato plants in different stages of growth, which will be started in earnest in mid-March. He will perform three different settings with the water teepees to assure there will be plenty of tomatoes to sell on his roadside cart starting in May.
These super-early tomatoes will need extra tending. The water teepees, which serve as solar heaters, keep the plants safe until they grow out of the top. Then Grier will have to provide the plants with extended frost protection by covering them until the cold weather passes.
If you're also anxious to get started growing tomatoes early, Grier has years of expertise and is willing to share it.
Preparing the ground
Grier suggests waiting to prepare the soil until the ground is dry.
With either a tiller or a shovel, dig as deep as you can and turn the soil over. Bust up the dirt clods and remove any stones. Add lime and fertilizer to the soil, and rake the bed so you have a flat surface for the water teepees.
Note: Do not fear red clay. Red clay has quite a bit to do with the yummy taste of a tomato, so take the time to work with it. If you need to, turn compost and leaf mulch into the clay to break it up.
Selecting the plants
Purchase tomato plants that are at least 15 to 18 inches tall. Make sure the leaves look good and the plant is healthy.
Grier starts all his plants from seeds and suggests Burpee's Early Pick variety for a nice size and delicious early tomato. Grier uses only hybrid seeds.
If you buy plants, choose ones that are resistant to diseases and insects.
Dig a hole at least 12 to 15 inches deep and about 18 inches or more wide.
Set the plant in the hole (only three inches or so will be above ground level) and carefully fill the hole with dirt, covering the plant's lower branches. This will help the plant develop a good root system deep in the soil.
Give the newly set plant a good watering.
Installing the teepee
Take a five-gallon pail and turn it upside-down over the plant. Erect the water teepee around the outside of the pail. Fill the baffles of the water teepee with a hose, then carefully remove the pail from inside the teepee.
Remember, it will get warm inside the teepee, so you will need to keep the plants watered.
Not all of us are inclined to get our tomatoes started this early, and there's no shame in waiting until May to get started.
If you are a non-gardener, you can hold Grier's gardening gumption in high esteem. Those homegrown tomatoes are going to be in your sandwich before you know it.