“Tell me about soul amendments,” she said, she meaning the friend who is sharing a community garden plot with me, said meaning texted.
She tends the garden on odd days of the month; I take the evens. On Saturdays, the young fellow I call the garden overseer spends a couple of hours there to give advice, to answer our questions, to do his own tending of the long beds he has planted with sunflowers and zinnias and cosmos.
It was an even-numbered Saturday, so it was my day to garden. The overseer and I had spent some time distributing soil amendments onto our bed and gently working them into the dirt with our fingertips as if massaging shampoo onto a child's scalp. First he sprinkled greensand (which was neither green nor sandy — more brown and dirt-gritty), which would slowly release potassium and iron into the soil. Then I sprinkled the crushed white rock phosphate, which would add phosphorus and some calcium.
It would have been better, he told me, to have worked these into the soil a few weeks before, the day we prepared the bed for planting, when we'd poured compost onto the dirt of our 8-by-4-foot raised bed and worked it in with a rake. But it would still help.
Part of my volunteer work that day, after I'd amended our soil and pulled the grass sprouts and watered the bed well, was to pull the incipient weeds from the beds that had not been planted yet. I don't know why, but it's enormously satisfying work, to grasp a weed at the point it emerges from the ground and wiggle it and feel the whole thing loosen its grip on the earth, to gently pullllll and see its roots surrender to the air.
In the evenings, we text each other a report from the garden, like coparents who share custody of a child. “Soul amendments” was a typo, but a rich one. Apt. Felicitous. Fruitful.
* * *
The garden is on a corner lot in a nice, old established neighborhood in Little Rock, mixed residential and commercial. There are 15 raised beds. Five are a year old, longish, and planted in flowers. Ten are new, their cedar planks still a healthy tan from the lumber yard, each 8 by 4 feet. Thirty-two square feet all our own. “A little bit of earth,” like Mary asks for in The Secret Garden.
Judy asked me in part because she hasn’t done this before and wanted a buddy. It also helps to have someone share the cost. Like the residential real estate in this 'hood, the garden rental is a little pricey, and does not include the cost of any plants. Seeds, mulch, straw and soil amendments are included.
We were the first to plant, on a Saturday in April. The garden overseer met us and unloaded his special hose, a tray of plants and a manila envelope of seed packets. Then he asked us some questions, making notes on his clipboard.
What experience do you have gardening?
What are your goals?
How often can you commit to being here? Understand that especially when plants are new, they need tending every day.
I joked that it felt like we were being interviewed to gauge our fitness to be foster parents.
My first experience with community gardens was in graduate school in Pittsburgh. In the heavily Italian neighborhood of Bloomfield, I had maybe a 12-by-12 plot in the plowed backyard of tiny St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where I sometimes worshipped with my friend Liz. Dad came up one Saturday to help me plant, bringing tomatoes and peppers and a wrinkled paper bag of pole bean seeds from the hardware store, and possibly some marigolds, which are a good companion plant for tomatoes. (I can't remember, and he's not here to help me; he died last August. "Did we plant marigolds in my garden in Pittsburgh?" is exactly the kind of thing I would want to ask him if we were still having our Friday morning phone dates.)
The garden was within walking distance of my apartment, but I wasn't as diligent as I should have been about tending it. “A garden is like a baby. You got to take care of it every day,” admonished the immigrant who lived across the street and oversaw the garden.
The next spring, when it was time to start up again, I was refused. There was a waiting list, and he was giving my spot to someone who would tend it better.
Later I had a plot adjoining my friend Sally’s plot, in part of the vast Frick Park, just down the hill from a graveyard where the Fricks and Mellons and other scions of the city were buried. We filled gallon jugs in a cast-iron bathtub along the tree line and hauled water to our plots. It was farther away, a ten-minute drive, but I tended it more responsibly, because even the friendship of one other gardener made it a community, and because I could visit her house afterward.
Judy's goals are partly to grow her own food. Mine: partly for that pleasure, I told the young man in the weathered straw hat, but mostly because my day job requires a lot of work in my head, and I wanted an antidote, a counterbalance, some physical work with my hands and body.
We had our pick of beds and made our first joint decision, choosing one on the interior, not along the sidewalk, and a little closer to the water hose behind the chiropractor’s office next door. We prepared the soil. We looked over the plants the young man had brought and talked about what we wanted to grow and decided together: two kinds of tomatoes, one beefy, one cherry. Two kinds of peppers. Eggplant. A heat-tolerant winter squash. Basil. Spinach, which we’ll grow until it gets too hot and then replace with something else. He suggested sowing marigold seeds around the perimeter, to help keep pests away from the tomatoes. My garden buddy delighted in the difference in the tiny round hard spinach seeds and the long two-tone papery marigold seeds. We took turns watering. We got out our respective iPhones and took some pictures. One of them reminds me of how C. S. Lewis described friendship in The Four Loves: two people side by side, absorbed in a common interest.
* * *
I didn’t foresee this, but now one of my goals for this garden is living peaceably, and confronting the things within me that strain against that. One of the areas of strain is when my opinions about gardening — gained from experience, faded by memory, influenced by friends — come up against the overseer’s knowledge, which seems sometimes to come more from his admittedly vast and more informed reading than from his experience. It took me a while to realize that part of the conflict for me is that the accumulation of information from seed catalogs and organic gardening sites and other sources is exactly the heady stuff I said I was trying to escape.
Other areas of conflict have arisen between me and my co-gardener. There was the odd day that I got confused about the date and watered the garden, thinking it was my day. She drove straight from a hard day’s work to the garden, looking forward to her own “Calgon, take me away” watering reverie, only to find I’d already been there. I had to apologize and start paying better attention. And there was the matter of whether to pinch the first blooms from the tomato plants.
It was a Saturday when I noticed a bloom on the Brandywine tomato. I mentioned proudly to the overseer that it had a blossom already. He answered, worriedly, “I think we’re supposed to pinch that.”
I realized another unspoken goal I had in gardening: to experience the joy of seeing the first tiny blooms, the promise of fruit to come. I suggested eggplant for us partly because it is the vegetable I feel most tenderly toward. I feel even more tenderly toward the tiny flowers appearing on the tomato plants.
There is, it must be said, a difference of opinion about whether to pinch those first buds. Do it and the plant will yield more tomatoes later, depending on the variety. Don’t do it with heirloom varieties, some gardeners say. Whether the plant is determinate or indeterminate matters, too, and I have read that information, but it’s drained from memory just like the gentle hose spray sinking into our friable soil.
I wanted those first blooms to become tomatoes. I don’t care if it means a lesser yield. The feeling of tenderness is part of what I go to the garden for.
This puts me at odds with my buddy, though. She trusts the overseer (who, after all, does this for a living). She is soaking up the first rains of all there is to know about what we are doing and what our plants are becoming and the best things we can do to help them reach their full potential. So, in conversation and in text, we gently negotiate, finding our way like two vines twining around the same pole.
I made some notes, and I honestly don’t remember whether I texted these or not. (I can’t check my phone because the phone I was using then accidentally got dunked when I forgot it was in my pocket and waded down into the water to embrace a friend who had just been baptized.) But I did write them down:
“The overthinking answer (in which questions of the garden put me right back in my head): Where do I pledge my allegiance? Is it to you, my friend, who planted the seed of this idea? Is it to the very young garden experts, who were not even seeds in their mothers' wombs when I first tended a 12-by-12-foot community garden plot all by myself? Is it to the concept and practice of organic gardening? There is some allegiance to you, first, yes, because friendship, because your idea, because I still owe you $ for this start. But the thing I FEEL allegiance to is the plants themselves. To the growing things, and to the beauty of sweet blossoms. To the silence of the soil.”
* * *
I spent much of May visiting, cultivating, tending, sowing community. The family I come from. The family I made. A community of retreatants who began a weekend as strangers and ended as tightly knit friends. I also worked through Dave Harrity’s marvelous book Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity and the Kingdom at Hand, which has much to say about community. One day our writing exercise included filling in the blanks in a series of sentences.
4 When I saw my ____ I was surprised at the way it ______.
When I saw my garden plot I was surprised at the way it seemed both small and large.
I got to spot the blossom first. Judy first spotted the cluster of green cherry tomatoes, and texted me a photo. I look forward to watching their reddening, and to the day of harvest, to that first burst of pure sunlight in my mouth. But the yield is not high in my goals. Neither, any more, is the work of emptying my mind and dirtying my fingernails.
My primary goal in sharing this garden is to yield to the Overseer’s soul amendments.