I discovered it almost too late. Perhaps it's best I didn't have the chance earlier, to sign up for a garden space at the Lawrence Community Garden. It would have hurt even more to leave it. I had a season and a half there, when if only I'd known, it could have been three and a half. But the time I spent there taught me I was a real gardener.
I learned early on that experts say it takes five years to really establish a garden. My first big garden became self-sustaining in its fourth year, the year I left it behind. A similar pattern has developed over the years, and so I know I can do it in three. The fourth year, if I get to have one, is the Big Payoff. But I can't count on that. So in my third season in Lawrence, New Jersey, I waited eagerly all winter to sign up for a 400 square foot plot about three miles from our house, and on sign-up day, I arrived early. Not knowing how it all went, I ended up fourth in line, but that was a good thing, because the man in front of me told me the person who'd had number 48 was giving it up, and that was prime real estate for me to take hold of. So I paid my twenty dollars and went for it.
Delays in plowing and tilling meant, however, that we didn't have the month of April to set things up for ourselves and put in early crops. The plots weren't ready until May 1. For weeks, I kept my little plants in flexible vinyl 5 gallon buckets, agonized over how I'd arrange my space, and often drove to the garden field to have a look at the flat, untouched canvas. These aren't allotments people can keep for themselves year-round. Only annuals must be planted, only temporary trimmings must be added. People do sign up for the same plot or plots each year, and newcomers who miss out on the few open spots are put on a waiting list.
Finally, the twenty by twenty spaces were marked with numbered stake and strings, and the fun and work began.
Everyone did things in their own way, and their personalities were on display through the plants and crops they chose, the equipment they used, and how they decorated their space, if at all. One woman had her husband help her arrange a space much like a back patio of a house she might once have enjoyed. It had two rocking chairs, a bird bath, flower pots, and a few rows of things like peas and beans. One man grew a solid square of nothing but tiny chili peppers.
There were two wells, equidistance from my lovely spot, and that was where people met and talked. But just as with any other group setting, there were talkers and there were those who never said much at all. Most of the gardeners were quiet people.
In my own space, I laid out my inexpensive ceramic floor tiles.
I say inexpensive because they'd been imported from Italy and laid in a kitchen I got to enjoy for a short while, and when we moved across the state, I brought the extras with me. I laid them in an X-formation so that I had four triangles of growing space to define, but between them, my daughter planted many Cosmos seeds so that by the middle of summer, the center was lush and golden and surrounded by bright red and green vegetables. I grew several varieties of tomatoes. Nine perfect cabbages. Lots of peppers, zucchini, green beans, and winter squash. A Caribbean man showed me how to sow a few potatoes he gave me. People watched my space with curiosity, and some of them told me I owed my initial success to the previous occupant. I don't know what they said about me to the person who took it over in 2012. But I do know I worked hard at it, and felt completely at peace and "at one with the world" whenever I was there.
Sometimes we worked hard side by side, watering or weeding or shoring up big tomato plants. The most interesting part of it to me was wandering around to see what others were doing with their own spaces. Some had two, which seemed wondrous and a little terrifying to me. I know if I was still there, though, I'd have snagged the space connected to mine the moment I could.
No one batted an eye to see me ladling water from my 5-gallon buckets with a soup ladle, or tying my acorn squash plants to the outside of the little fence I'd created around my space. At first, I imagine they thought I was just there for the look of the thing with my cute fence and tiles and series of found object sculptures I used to decorate the front of it. The guy opposite the little road from me was very serious with his straw and homemade fertilizer. The woman across the little path on the front side spent ages putting down newspaper to keep weeds at bay where we walked, and had a fussy, nervous disposition. I remember the only thing that really bothered me while I was there was watching a family who had gone in on four plots together (we were allowed two at the most,) plant their entire area with soybeans. That seemed awfully commercial, and as a rule-follower, this niggled at me. But near that area someone set up a long table with bins on it so that we could give extra produce to the Trenton Soup Kitchen. It brought me great joy to bring a percentage of everything I picked over there so that someone else could eat it, too. I got to help feed people!
Everything had to be taken down or apart by November 15. The next year we were able to start two weeks earlier, but I had to abandon it all in mid-July to move 600 miles west. I don't know if the help I asked for in bringing in a harvest to give away was actually followed through on, and in August, that area was hit with huge amounts of rain, and flooded twice. By then, I was learning how to dig through clay so I could put in winter squash plants I'd brought with me in buckets in order to have something to show for the season.