An Adventure In Urban Gardening
In the summer of 2004, fed up with my inability to control my spending at the Waverly Farmers’ Market, I decided to take matters into my own hands and grow my own produce. There was just one problem. Where could I, a confirmed second-floor renter, with no land of my own, plant a garden?
Then one day, while leaving the 7-Eleven in Remington, I spied a little strip of unattended land adjacent to an abandoned house in the DMZ between the Domino’s and the Pizza Boli’s. The next weekend, I went to the spot, pulled weeds, threw away bottle caps and condom wrappers, fertilized the soil, and claimed it as my own.
The next challenge was deciding what to plant there. I had heard about a traditional Native American method of growing corn, beans, and squash in a single harmonious mound, called a Three Sisters Garden. Corn, the tallest and oldest sister, gets planted first. After the corn starts to come up, you plant the next sister, beans, which grow up the corn stalks using them for support. The final baby sister is squash, which grows around the mound, protecting the little plot from erosion and critters. I really hate squash but felt I had to respect the old ways. Often tobacco would be grown on the outskirts of the garden, but Lowe’s doesn’t sell tobacco seeds over the counter, so I settled for sunflowers. I added some tomato plants, and my perfect little stolen garden was all planned out. It all seemed so easy, so natural, so rewarding. I would help Baltimore become the City That Seeds.
More research revealed that the traditional way to fertilize a Three Sisters Garden is with a fish head buried at the bottom of the plot. I went to three grocery stores asking for fish heads. They all said they didn’t give out fish heads, making me wonder what inspired fishmongers to develop a No Head policy. “Just buy a whole fish and lop off the head,” one suggested. I supposed he believed in the old adage: Give a girl a fish; you have fed her for today. Teach a girl to decapitate a fish; you have fed her for a summer. Still, beheading a fish seemed like a violent way to start a garden, so I just opted for spraying on Miracle-Gro, which worked just fine. Sorry, Gaia.
My boyfriend, Chris, showed me a place to hook up a hose nearby, and I planted Big Sister corn in May. Early life in the garden was good, days spent lovingly weeding and tending to my crop. Once Chris and I even took our dogs and had a picnic next to the garden, laughing about all those poor chumps who bought their vegetables retail as visions of succotash danced in our heads.
I can’t be sure if I cursed the garden with my nontraditional fertilization or my dismissal of the squash, but the good times didn’t last long. A few weeks later, after the corn had started to sprout but before I planted the beans, I went to the plot to check on my crop and discovered a disturbance. There was a giant footprint on the mound; the distinct treads just barely missed the first corn sprout. It upset me, but I figured it was just a mistake, an errant passer-by who, like me, enjoyed a hearty walk in the city from time to time. I smoothed out the soil and tried to forget about it.
Two days later when I saw another footprint, I put up a circle of stakes to protect the corn and make my garden more visible to the stepper. The third time the footprint appeared, I looked for outside guidance.
“Someone has been stepping on the corn,” I told Chris. He wasn’t surprised. “Yeah, I saw the guy do it the other day when I was driving by. There’s a squatter living in that house and he jumps the fence instead of walking around. He lands right in it every time,” Chris said with a chuckle.
“Can’t he see my garden?” I asked, pointing to the nonaggressive but clearly visible stakes and the raised mound of earth.
“He probably doesn’t even know that he’s doing it,” Chris replied.
“Maybe we can offer him some of the vegetables when they’re ready.” I imagined myself, pleasantly offering a cornucopia basket brimming with my homegrown veggies to the big-footed alleged squatter—his squatting status was never confirmed; the house looked abandoned, but who was I to judge another’s yard? Maybe he would be so moved by my organic gesture that he’d build his own little Three Sisters Garden right next to mine. Our corn could pollinate each other all summer, and by July we could share a celebratory meal.
“Honey, I don’t think so,” Chris told me as he loaded the gardening supplies back into my basket.
A few days later Chris and I returned to the plot to plant the beans. It was chilly and the sky hung thick with impending rain. It was the kind of day that makes life in the city feel bleak and oppressive. As I sat patting down the newly planted beans, the alleged squatter stuck his head out the back door of the house, took a look at us, and ducked back in. Moments later, he came out the front door. I was surprised to see he was a clean-shaven man in his mid-30s, lean but not thin, and wearing a belt—all signs of civility in my experience. But when I saw his blurry eyes and his big muddy sneakers, I wasn’t so sure.
“Let me handle this,” I told Chris, bolstered by a post-sowing serenity. I explained, with my usual pleasant and calm demeanor, that we were trying to grow something, make a little garden right here in the city. “So if you could just help out by watching where you step, that would be great,” I said, hoping he heard the exclamation point of sincerity in my voice.
“I’ll step wherever I damn well please,” he replied in a monotone drawl. I couldn’t tell if he was stoned or just indifferent. We entered into a kind of negotiation, as I offered alternative places for him to step and he restated his original choice of “wherever he damn well pleased.” I pointed out that he could jump over another section of the fence that was actually lower than his usual jumping place. He remained unmoved. At my lowest point, I even suggested that he might reduce his commute to the 7-Eleven by stepping on the day lilies that someone else had planted years before. Pretty as they were, the day lilies were perennial and would come back year after year. The corn was one-time only and very fragile. Nothing.
Finally, I openly pleaded: “Can’t you just not step on my corn? Please?” He just hitched up his shorts, squared up his shoulders, and looked around nervously. Then I heard over my shoulder, “Hey, buddy, why do you need to be such an asshole? Or are you too just too stupid to understand what she’s asking?” Chris apparently wasn’t going to let me handle this after all.
“You’re the asshole,” the squatter shot back, his voice suddenly sharp, “I can step wherever I damn well please.” All the indifference was gone from his voice. Now he was mad.
I didn’t need the benefit of Native American folklore to know what happens when two men begin arguing about where each is allowed to step. There was the usual name-calling and taunting, which led to some finger-poking, escalating into shoving, culminating in the classic, call-and-response:
“Do you want a fight?”
“Do you want a fight?” Eventually punches began flying along with some pseudo kick-boxing maneuvers, lots of huffing, and even some spitting. Like every fight I’ve ever seen, it was more interesting in theory than in actuality. Just imagine any scene explained by a bewildered woman on Cops but in gardening clogs and flowered gloves. Even the neighbors seemed unimpressed, walking by as if garden fights were a common indicator of summertime in Baltimore. In the end both men had bloody lips and torn shirts, but it was the alleged squatter who ran away.
A week later, without explanation, the back door of the house was padlocked. The rest of the summer was conflict-free. Chris watered, I weeded, and we never saw the alleged squatter again. The garden was ours.
By July we had results, but it was less like Three Sisters than Two Roommates and Subletter. The corn didn’t grow very tall or very kernelly. Later someone told me that was because I hadn’t planted enough rows, resulting in lonely, maladjusted corn. All ears, no guts. The beans were scrawny. The squash didn’t even make a showing. But the tomatoes grew and grew. I thought the tomatoes would be the hardest to grow, but until almost November the plants popped out big beautiful red produce.
Last spring, I wasn’t able to plant another garden. I was too busy writing a book on gardening for young girls, awarded to me more for my colorful fluency in tween-speak than for my expert skills in botany. When I eagerly suggested adding a Three Sisters Garden to the book, the editor said, “Ummm, sounds kind of boring.” So I put in a craft about making paper flowers out of traced handprints attached to Popsicle sticks.
I still sometimes drive by and look at the patch of grass that Chris still keeps mowed and watered and think about my little vegetable garden. Once I even pulled over, thinking I saw a rogue tomato in the bramble by the fence, but the spot of red was just a crumpled Big Bite box. Unlike me and the corn, the day lilies I tried to sacrifice keep coming back every summer—no matter who steps on them.
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