High-Octane Tomatoes: The Gas Station Gardener

An unlikely plot proves fertile ground for gardening—and friendship.

Illustration by Katy Dockrill

It started as a pleasant diversion as I walked to the Y each morning. I would stop and watch the attendant of a no-name gas station on Route 27 in Metuchen cultivating a small vegetable garden in a grassy strip next to the garage bays.

It was the summer of 2011. For months, I tracked the gas-station gardener’s progress as he tilled the meager plot and sprayed water from a hose, all mere feet from the fuel pumps.

I began to strike up short conversations while walking by or paying at the pump. I learned that he was a Filipino who once farmed many acres in his native land. He moved to the United States eight years ago to find a more lucrative occupation, but in central New Jersey, work and land were hard to come by. Still, he found a way. Bloom where you’re planted, as the saying goes.

The gas-station gardener told me what he was growing—tomatoes, eggplants, string beans, green peppers, cantaloupes, pumpkins, and a few veggies I had never heard of—and how each was progressing. His English was choppy, but his excitement filled the gaps: “Look. Here. Tomatoes. Almost. And here. Eggplant. Now.” I marveled that anyone would be crazy enough to consider eating these vegetables, grown in soil that likely was soaked in oil and tainted by exhaust fumes.

Tomatoes weren’t our only topic. I’d tell him about my job or my weekend. He’d tell me about his commute by train and bike from his home in Rahway and how his wife didn’t like him to work such long hours. He shared his pride in his daughter, a doctor, and his son, an economist, both of whom live in the Phillipines. All this, but I didn’t even know his name. I asked once, but it was hard to pronounce and I promptly forgot it. I didn’t want to ask again.

Then the gas-station gardener started promising me tomatoes. Each day, I’d insist I couldn’t take from his bounty. And each day the garden’s green growth inched closer to ripeness. When he gave me three tomatoes, I had little choice. I thanked him for the gift.

I tried to tell myself the tomatoes were organic, but I could only view them as toxic. The tomatoes sat on my counter for a few days. I was troubled. If I threw them out, I’d have to find a new gym. Finally, I decided to give one a try.

It tasted good, with the sweet succulence one expects of a Jersey tomato. I was sold—and I didn’t have to pony up the joiner’s fee at a new gym.

Last year, the garden almost didn’t happen. My friend explained that the owner didn’t want him using so much water. Then, there he was tilling the ground. He and his boss had reached an accord—a smaller garden was allowed. But the gas-station gardener was crafty. He planted peppers in the weeds by the edge of the sidewalk, where the owner wouldn’t think to look. There were other challenges, including eggplants and string beans stolen from their vines.

This year, harvest season came and went, but the little plot sprouted only dandelions. My friend had grown tired of fighting with his boss over the plants. He tried to grow tomatoes at home, but the ground was too hard. I suggested that next season he try my front lawn. At a glance he declared the soil just right. Now I can spend the winter looking forward to my very own crop of high-octane Jersey tomatoes—courtesy of my friend, the gas-station gardener.

Sharon Waters is a freelance writer in Metuchen. She has a notoriously brown thumb.

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