By Christa Carignan of Calendula and Concrete
It was the sidewalk less traveled that led me to the community garden. I usually took walks in my neighborhood by heading eastward, but one day I decided to break the routine and head west. I turned a new corner and found myself enthralled by an expanse of cobbled-together fences that enclosed dozens of gardens in all shapes and sizes. My eyes grew wide at the sight of towering sunflowers, lines of leafy lettuces, and bent-over plants dripping with ripe tomatoes.
People have gardens here in the city? And they grow food? And no one steals the tomatoes?
I signed my name to the waiting list and eventually got a plot at the Newark Street Community Garden here in Washington, D.C. I really wanted a flower garden, and my husband, who firmly asserted he wanted no part in daily gardening chores, agreed to help me at least put up a fence. Then He-Who-Loves-to-Cook soon caught on to the idea of growing fresh herbs and vine-ripened tomatoes. We decided to divide the plot equally for edibles and ornamentals.
My gardening experience was virtually nothing up to that point, except for tending to a few houseplants. I grew up in a family of gardeners, though, and I think they cultivated my spirit to grow things all along. I was captivated at a young age by a swath of lacy pink Sweet Williams that grew outside my grandmother’s front door. My dad grew a row of raspberry bushes and my brothers and I had the unpleasant task of helping him pluck away the Japanese beetles that invaded them before we could get our hands on any berries. I learned early on that there were beautiful and delicious things to be had from a garden, but they didn’t come effortlessly. In the same vein, I recall the oddball chore of having to deliver the bucket of food scraps from the kitchen to the compost heap; I was sure no other kids in my entire school had a compost heap.
Ah, but now… compost. Give me compost!
Our first vegetable bed at the community garden was literally a pile of dirt we mounded into a semi-rectangular shape. In the first major rainstorm, we had beet seedlings tumbling over the side and washing away. We laugh at it now, but it was clear we needed a little help.
We have since met so many fellow community gardeners – young and old – who have inspired us and helped us along the way. I recall the day when our new friend, Juan, gave us a few stems of oregano. “Just push this into the ground”, he said, “and it will grow into a new plant.” We looked in disbelief – as the stems didn’t appear to have roots – and we shoved them into the ground just as he instructed. Now, three years later, we have a beautiful and thriving oregano plant. We also have delicious sweet onions and a fledgling grapevine from our friend Albertino. We have a patch of the most extraordinary strawberries grown from transplants left “up for grabs” by the shed. And we’ve grown our own garlic, peas, squash, cabbage, and much more.
Growing some of our own food has been nothing short of an extraordinary learning experience. I look at food differently now. I am more in tune to what’s in season. I think about where our food comes from and what it takes to get it to our table. I am more open to trying new things. Every harvest, however small, is immensely gratifying because we grew it ourselves. How incredible it is to witness the journey of a tomato – from a single seed started in a pot on our apartment living room floor in February, to the final juicy slice enjoyed between two slices of bread on a sweltering day in July. Or to go to the plot after a long day indoors and pop a few fresh peas in my mouth;
On my blog, Calendula & Concrete, I share my gardening discoveries and newfound appreciation of fresh-grown food. Online, I’ve found a community of generous and thoughtful people around the globe who are eager to share their own experiences and enthusiasm for growing things. It’s a community garden that’s grown well beyond these cobbled-together fences.
Originally posted at DC Urban Gardener News. Photos by Christa Carignan