ARCHIVE: Retired Trooper Tinkers with Tomatoes

Story and photo by Pamela Price

Originally printed in May 2010 issue of Leon Springs Community News

Henry Brune, Jr. of Leon Springs, Texas (Image copyright 2010, Pamela Price)

Although he retired as a sergeant from the Texas Department of Public Safety two years ago, Henry Brune, Jr. is still engaged with the law enforcement world. Currently he serves as president of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators. Yet when he’s not fulfilling his presidential duties or traveling with his wife, Brune occupies himself in the couple’s ample garden in the Stage Coach Hills subdivision.

“I don’t grow potatoes or corn or anything that I can get cheaper at the store,” says Brune, gesturing to a large plot filled with young plants growing inside large tin cans to ward off pests.

Brune and his wife, Marjorie, moved into this house 1978, and they’ve gardened here ever since. They’ve cultivated vegetables in this location so long, in fact, that the trees in his and a neighboring yard have begun to compete with the largest of two gardens for sunlight.

“We grow things like tomatoes, peppers, okra, sugar snap peas. We’ve got cucumbers over there that grow well on a fence, Brune says.

It’s the tomatoes, however, that captivate him.

“There’s a man up the road here who’ll be selling tomatoes from the back of his truck soon. I would see him out there with tomatoes ripe before mine and I thought, ‘I’ve got to have my tomatoes. I’ve got to figure out a way to get them early, like him.'”

Prior to last year–and in keeping with local gardening convention, Brune held off planting tomatoes until early April. Then he hatched a plan to put the plants out over a month earlier. This year he’s on track to savor his first tomato before the end of this month.

It’s just before sunset on a warm spring night. Brune walks across his back lawn to a large metal and PVC container perched over a raised bed. Inside the structure’s confines are nine tomato plants. The metal protects the plants on four sides. Tonight the container’s top is open, leaving the PVC supports exposed. Brune has planted three tomato varieties—Celebrity, a cherry, and Phoenix—in what he calls his “square foot garden.”

Even though it’s only early May, the plants are tall and lush. Most of them have already grown beyond the confines of their individual cages. Two plants have produced small green fruits. Others bear tiny yellow blossoms that beckon bees and other pollinators. 

Thus far, Brune’s experiment is working.

“This is my own design,” he says, giving the metal a tap. It keeps the plants from being frost bit and protects them from the wind. They’re big and strong enough now that I’ll remove the metal soon.”

On the ground inside the container, leaves collected on Brune’s property serve as mulch. He says that when he lets the leaves decay and tills them into the clay soil a few times, he gets a nutrient rich, sugar-fine soil. Beneath the leaves, a soaker hose snakes around the plants.

“Tomatoes will basically stay a nice firm, round globe unless you get rain. Then, you’ll get cracks at the top near the stem. That’s why we don’t use sprinklers. We use drip irrigation–soaker hoses here and a drip line over in the big garden–to keep the water away from the fruit. You can’t do anything about Mother Nature and her rain, but you can keep from making it worse.”

Asked to describe an essential skill or trait for tomato gardeners, Brune replies quickly.

“Patience. You need to have an abundance of it. And that’s not my virtue.”

Marjorie notes that they check the plants daily for pests, eschewing pesticides in favor of a largely organic approach that involves removing wriggling critters by hand. 

“You’ve really got to watch for the horn worms,” adds Brune. “They’ll strip all the leaves and can decimate a plant quickly.”

It won’t be too long before the Brunes’ harvest their first tomatoes. All totaled this year the couple has almost 30 plants. Marjorie says she likes to roast handfuls of the tiny cherry tomatoes in the oven, but both gardeners confess to eating straight from the vine regularly.

“I’ll come out here with my salt shaker sometimes,” says Brune. “I just love fresh tomatoes. And that stuff at the store doesn’t compare.”


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