Urban Gardening

Elizabeth Sullivan
Photography by William Godwin
Special thanks to Isabel Eljaiek
and Tricycle Gardens

April 22 2015

As the sun sinks low over the garden we find ourselves with dirty fingernails and soil-caked knees, a salty outline along the tops of our foreheads and the sting of mosquito bites on our ankles. Once considered an annoyance, these marks are now a badge of honor, and we grin as we collect our bounty of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and zucchini into a basket that is far too small. We gather in the kitchen and the bounty of the garden beds are scrubbed and chopped, sautéed, grilled, or roasted into a meal that is exceptionally satisfying because we truly created it with our own hands. The surplus is scrubbed and stored or sent home with our helpers and friends in brown paper bags.

All are welcome in the garden to weed, to fertilize, to plant seeds and turn soil and remove the occasional slug. We start the season with the manual labor of tilling and removing the weeds that didn’t freeze in winter, while also mapping where each seed will be planted to germinate and root and one day feed our community. The excitement of choosing seeds becomes a communal affair, asking questions like does anyone else like broccoli raab? What is your favorite tomato variety? If I have too many peppers will you take them home? We plant based on our own needs but also considering those around us. We plant knowing we will feed our friends and family. We plant knowing it is a risk—some seasons bring plenty and some seasons seem to bring nothing but more hard work to keep the garden alive. But no matter how great or lowly the bounty, no tomato tastes so sweet as the one you nurtured to harvest.

Of course, we live in a world of bell peppers with produce stickers and trucks that bring “fresh” peaches all the way from Georgia and sprinklers that turn on periodically to keep the shelved greens from wilting. But what we gain from the garden is the slow process, the confidence of knowing exactly what carried our fruit from seed to sprout, the relying on the near and familiar earth of our own backyards to sustain us. We facilitate and then observe a transformation. There is a greater appreciation in knowing we have food to fill our bellies, we need not visit those big stores with fluorescent lights and humming refrigerators—we simply need to voyage across soil. There is our sustenance.

Nearly all of this process brings us great reward even outside of the food, but perhaps the most significant is the opportunity to share the knowledge we have been given. Why should we learn to plant and sustain if we keep this enlightenment within the confines of our fence? Had we fields in the heart of the city, a greater garden would be built for all who could reach it. Children exposed merely to the tiny trees planted along their sidewalks would come and make mud pies and exclaim that they never knew potatoes grew underground! We would teach the hungry how to sow, and come longer days and plentiful sunlight they would walk lightheartedly home with their arms overflowing.

If such a garden is never built, the burden lies on us to open the gate and invite our neighbors in. We are called upon to share our portion, sustain our communities, and make it possible for the garden to continue to grow, always.