A beautiful, sunny, 70-degrees-with-a-light-breeze Sunday morning was upon me. I walked out to the garden and saw Bobby and Nataka working in their plot. They were digging. Usually, the garden gets a delivery of soil that everyone uses to top off their plots. This year, the place the soil comes from had an issue with contamination and may not deliver soil anywhere this year. After hearing that we may not receive soil, Nataka and Bobby decided to dig trenches where their walkways were to maximize the soil they had in the plot already. The trenches also meant that they were about eighteen inches closer to all their plants when working in the garden. They did not have to bend over as much as I did in my flat plot. After admiring their ingenuity, I decided to check on the mini-greenhouses and noticed that I had quite a few tomato seeds that had germinated. The warm weather and regular watering created the perfect environment for tiny little tomato plants to grow. One of the squash seedlings had completely outgrown its mini-greenhouse. I took a two-liter bottle and cut it in half. I planted the squash plant further down the plot and covered it up with its new home.
I was really proud of the mini-greenhouses. Another new garden neighbor, Jessie, was working in her plot for the first time this year. She was turning the earth and cleaning up her area. Jessie, Nataka, and Bobby borrowed my car to make a run to Home Depot. I weeded my plot and found lots of onions and mint growing wild. I decided to transplant the onions and pull as much mint up as I could. Nataka, Bobby, and Jessie returned shortly after with lots of plants and seeds in hand. Jessie bought seed tape. She said that she wanted to avoid thinning carrots. When carrot seeds are planted, it’s hard to space them correctly so gardeners usually throw a row of seeds down. When the seeds germinate, they grow too close together so gardeners have to measure out the correct spacing and remove tiny carrot plants. If thinning is done incorrectly, carrots won’t have enough room to grow and you won’t end up with hearty, tasty vegetables. Thinning carrots, though I’ve never done it, seems to be annoying to gardeners. Seed tape is two sheets of biodegradable material with seeds inserted between. The seeds are spaced exactly right so there is no need for thinning. I resolved to figure out how to make seed tape for almost free. Nataka and Bobby graciously gifted me 6 lettuce plants. I am not sure what variety they are, but some were red and some were green. I gave them generous spacing and lovingly patted them into the ground. The plot was looking pretty good.
I had a community meeting to attend for two hours, then I headed straight back to the garden to meet up with Heidi and her gardener friend Tori. Tori knew a lot about gardening and as I walked her through the community garden she shared some wisdom. I expressed an interest in planting strawberries and she said she had some extra strawberry plants at her house. My neighbor David appeared and chatted with us for a while. He walked away and about 5 minutes later, my neighbor Matthew walked by with his friend OK from Nigeria. Matthew came into the garden and I showed him my plot. Matthew said that he wanted to have a garden with an aqueduct in his backyard. We started talking about edible flowers and Tori explained how to make wine from flowers. About 10 minutes later, my neighbor Khari walked by with two friends. I showed them my plot and we talked about food systems and how growing our own food will take some fuel out of the dreadful food system fire. Khari and his friends left after a while and we continued chatting about community gardens. OK was really curious about the inner workings of the urban community garden. He was curious about the etiquette and the rules and how duties were shared. After about 20 more minutes, Nataka, Bobby, Khari, and Khari’s two friends all returned to the garden. There were ten of us, chatting, laughing, and showing our plots off. People walking by were mystified at this impromptu gathering. Bobby showed me some scrap wood that was lying outside the garden and said I could use it for my pathways. The tomato stakes I laid down my first day in the garden seemed to be in perpetual motion and were never perfectly aligned. The scrap wood was about 8 feet long and looked like it used to have a starring role as large fenceposts. I jumped on the chance to replace my tomato stake pathway with heavy wood and enlisted Heidi to help me carry the wood onto the plot. We removed the old tomato stakes and placed the new used wood on my plot. After the lifting was done, we re-joined the spontaneous garden party. My face hurt from smiling at all the beautiful people around me.
That sunny Sunday, I received six lettuce plants, eight onion plants, the promise of strawberry plants, and a whole lot of scrap wood for my pathways. I also laughed and smiled more than I have in a long time. I engaged with my neighbors and friends. The garden is not a utopia. It has all the problems that we see in the world around us. There is paranoia, jealousy, greed, miscommunication, and even theft in the garden. Despite all this negativity, the garden also has the potential to bring out the best in people because it is a community space where we can all gather around a common goal. The garden is a rare common space in a world full of increasingly individualistic and privatized ideals. You cannot commodify a sudden gathering of people engaged in great conversation. You cannot put a price tag on a shared ideal or the camaraderie you feel when you share a piece of knowledge about how to grow greens. No one owns the garden and everyone is allowed in. Sunday’s gathering never would have happened in a privately owned mall or business or a destitute parking lot. The garden is a gift because it gives us space to share our individual gifts with each other. I walked back to my house feeling truly grateful and satiated. It was as if I just finished Thanksgiving dinner. My cup runneth over.