On Easter Sunday, I stopped at the grocery store on the way back from church. Sometime that week, a series of what looked like temporary quonset huts had sprung up in the parking lot of the Hy-Vee, our local supermarket. In front of them, arranged like sandbags, were pallets of peat and potting soil and pea gravel. If it hadn't been for the sadly dropping windsocks and arrangement of gazing balls, it could have been a mock-up of a military installation. Instead, this indicated that the assault on the land was nigh. Planting season was upon us.
I moved to Iowa City in September 2005, after a year-long job search while my boyfriend, Steve, began working on his MFA in nonfiction at the University of Iowa. All year, while I futilely tried to convince the good people of Iowa that yes, really, I seriously and honestly and no-I'm-not-kidding wanted to move to their state, I made mental lists of the things I would do when I moved to Iowa. The list included writing my first novel, going to as many readings at Prairie Lights as I could schedule, starting a band, participating in a presidential caucus, and growing some tomatoes.
"You're going to turn into a farm girl," said my friend's husband. "You're going to get out there and start digging in the dirt."
I begged to differ. Putting a tomato plant in a pot and hoping for the best was one thing. Digging up our landlord's grass terrified me.
But I wanted that tomato plant, so on April 16, 2006, I pulled up the hood of my windbreaker and dodged raindrops across the parking lot toward the quonset hut gardening fiesta. Not confident enough to start with seeds (and recognizing that I was probably too late for seeds at that point), I selected five seedlings: one sage, one spearmint, and three cherry tomatoes. I asked about basil and parsley, and the poor guy assigned to stand out there in the rain said he hadn't seen either of those yet. "It's kind of early, don't you think?" he said.
I shrugged. I had no idea. Don't they have greenhouses in Iowa? They have plenty of basil and parsley for sale for $1.99 per package over in the Hy-Vee—that means someone's growing it somewhere.
Nonetheless, I vowed to come back. Five plants seemed like a good number to start with. I bought a big plastic pot for the tomatoes, a smaller plastic pot for the herbs, and, as a last minute impulse buy, two Gerbera daisy plants and two ceramic pots to stick them in. They'd make a nice addition to the front porch. I hoisted two bags of potting soil into my cart, spent a long two or three minutes in front of the pea gravel deciding if I thought it was worth buying 50 pounds of rocks just to put a couple of handfuls down in the bottom of my pots, and decided drainage was really not as necessary as the back of the potting soil bag seemed to indicate.
I paid up, and hauled my purchases to the car. The weather might be dreary, but I was participating in this planting thing. In the middle of an agricultural paradise, how could this experiment possibly go wrong?