Cut or Fertilize to Foster Growth?

Cut or Fertilize to Foster Growth?

My son Andy recently brought home a tomato plant. Not that he likes tomatoes (unless they are cooked up until they become Carol’s renowned tomato sauce), or plants more generally. He’s just become fascinated by the process by which one might grow bigger tomatoes. So we are all engaged in observing this horticultural experiment.

One of the things he has been told is that, to get bigger tomatoes, he should pinch off the buds of later tomatoes so that they don’t develop. This, it is said, will concentrate the fruit growth in the few remaining tomatoes, increasing their size.

I have no idea whether or not this will work. I know that, in general, pruning things back often is critical to getting lush new growth, and cutting away dead or diseased limbs strengthens the overall tree or shrub. But my thumb is quite brown (perhaps because I’m colorblind!) I also know that, depending on the plant and the circumstances, one can prune the wrong parts of the plant, or at the wrong time, or by the wrong amount, and cripple future growth, even killing the plant.

What Andy has yet to explore are the recommendations having to do with fertilizer. There are plenty of those, too, of course: what to use, when to use it, how to apply it and how much to apply. I suspect, on balance, the tomato plant may be fortunate that he has neglected this part of the equation to date. Andy tends to subscribe to the “if some is good, more is better” philosophy on many things. Too much fertilizer, of course, can burn a plant, or cause it to grow faster than its infrastructure can handle, both of which will produce unfortunate results.

But the right amount of the right fertilizer, applied in the right way and at the right time might give us some really nice tomatoes in due season.

Real gardeners, at least in my experience, embrace both the “cut” and the “fertilize” methods of fostering growth. They vary their approach depending on the season, the health of the plant, even the nature of the plant itself. They aren’t afraid of cutting, when that’s what is needed. Nor are they unwilling to enrich the soil in order to produce the growth they seek.

If only our two political parties were that way!

The current debate about fighting unemployment and poverty has tended to present us with alternative views of how to tend our national economic garden that seem to embrace only one approach to the problem, whether that approach is pruning or fertilizing.

The dueling budget proposals out last month in Washington, one from the White House, one from Rep. Paul Ryan, illustrate this problem clearly.

For the Obama administration, the way forward involves fertilizing the impoverished and the unemployed through expanded investments in early childhood education, job training and urban revitalization. The “pruner” side is exemplified by the Rep. Paul Ryan budget, which proposes something approaching $3 trillion in cuts to health care support (including Medicaid), Pell grants (which are means-tested) and other programs aimed at assisting the poor.

Both budgets, it should be noted, make selective use of the other side’s approach to solving problems. Rep. Ryan’s budget offers substantial additional fertilizer for the military; President Obama’s prunes the military budget back. So it’s clear that both sides know how to use alternative methods.

And, interestingly, both advocates, Rep. Ryan and President Obama, express the same goal of reducing poverty and unemployment.

Of course, both budgets are more political manifesto than serious policy initiative. Neither will make it into law, not even in substantially revised form. The warring sides simply

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are choosing the terrain on which they will fight this next election season’s battles.

I argued last week that clear choices are good for the political process. The Republicans and the Democrats are obliging us by providing such clarity on the critical questions of addressing growing poverty and resistant unemployment.

I’m just wishing that the alternatives reflected a bit more wisdom about the need for both pruning and fertilizing to help our national economy grow.

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