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MONONA - At Pete's Dirt Farm, the farm doesn't even touch the dirt.

And the dirt isn't even dirt, it's cow manure mixed with pine needles.

But Pete Merrill has managed to fashion a modern wonder, probably better described as Pete's Hanging Gardens. This summer he has grown 100 or so tomato plants, none touching the ground, all laden with fruit: sugary yellow globes the size of shooter marbles, slicers the perfect size of a slice of whole wheat toast, oblong teardrops of brilliant crimson, golf-ball size orbs so juicy that overspray from a bite threatens passersby.

Merrill has filled his back yard on Femrite Drive - across from the Roselawn Mausoleum - with his hanging garden.

"I don't have to dig any holes," he said, explaining the buckets and buckets filled with tomatoes and peppers (and manure and pine needles and pine cones) hanging from wooden frames. There are no fancy tomatoes in the buckets, and his pride and joy is one group of seven tomato plants and one pepper plant which he calls, collectively, "Big Bertha," in an elevated garbage can.

Merrill sells his tomatoes at a local market and also has had people come and pick their own.

Because of the mild temperatures, backyard garden boasters have been a little late in coming out this summer, but their time appears to have arrived. Office lunches are revealing inch-thick tomato slices and cucumber sandwiches, buckets of beets are casually left by the mailboxes, zucchini becomes the junk mail of vegetables.

But Merrill does not brag. Visited in his backyard this week, he popped one cherry tomato after the other into his grizzled maw.

"Try this," he said, to a visitor, "and this, and this."

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