Archive for the 'Gettin’ Dirty' Category

My indoor plant license should be revoked

When I gave up the opportunity to plant a garden (even the balcony variety) at my own apartment, I did not forego all outdoor space. My Oakland apartment building boasts a rooftop deck and an interior courtyard, and although I-880 hugs the building on its opposite side, it is possible to sit outside on one of the lovely wooden benches and get some fresh air and sunlight.

“Maybe you could get them to let you put a tomato in a corner of the upstairs deck,” one of my friends said when I moved in.

No such luck. Although I’m a renter, my landlord is a condo owner, and it’s a condo building, complete with everything that comes along with it: sterilely manicured open space, a list of approved movers to use when entering or leaving the premises with your worldly belongings, and, although I will admit I haven’t asked the question, an absolutely-not policy on putting tomato plants on the roof.

So instead, I’ve been trying to make do with a miniscule potted plant collection in my living room window. I have a low table and plenty of light (although not much direct sunlight, to be honest), coming in, and that has caused me, in moments of weakness, to buy plants that I am probably dooming to certain death.

My indoor plant track record has not ever been good.

The first arrival on the scene was a mini Gerbera, bought at Trader Joe’s. The movers had just arrived that morning, and I was exhausted and at the store expressly for the purpose of impulse-buying large quantities of cheese and wine and convenience foods, and the cheery red flowers (oh, how I do love Gerberas) sat there muttering at me as I went by, “Hey lady! Lady! How ‘bout just a little taste?”

Of course, the following weekend, I was leaving for Hawaii for a week’s vacation, with no plan for watering the Gerbera while I was gone. It still has barely-surviving foliage, to be sure, but since I returned from Kaua’i, has refused me additional blossoms.

Then, last week, after my first stint in the Victory Garden, I decided to buy a basil plant that was on sale at Whole Foods. (You may notice a trend here, a trend that involves shopping when hungry AND needy-of-plants.)

The basil plant was beautiful, indeed, but I purchased it and did what I do with every plant I ever take home, whether I’m on vacation or not: I forget to water it. Or, worse, I remember that I should water it and just think, Oh, I’ll do that later. And then later becomes dinner out with friends and then there’s that workout I really should be getting to and then I have laundry to do and the dishes to wash and then…and then…

This is why outside plants and I get along so much better. If I don’t plant them under a godforsaken Black Walnut, they have such a better shot at getting what they need from the sun and the rain and the earth-that’s-not-potting soil.

This leads me to the inevitable, which is Sunday, when I suddenly looked at the basil plant and noticed that it was utterly droopy. This set me atwirl, trying to remember if I’d watered it, or if I’d over-watered it, or if I’d maybe given it some wine just for fun one night?

I decided to go with under-watering, because that’s my usual M.O., and gave it a drink. The water ran right out the bottom as if it didn’t even want to stop to say hello to the dirt, so I gave it some more, operating in my usual, I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing manner.

I also watered the Gerbera, which is really just a pot of Gerbera greens, which is really a plant that I kind of want to just throw out, but which makes me guilty so I keep it and begrudgingly nurture it. I am like that guy in The DaVinci Code, the albino monk? That Gerbera plant is my cilice.

By the next day, the Gerbera was waving its little fronds of greens in the air like a happy camper. And the basil, while still clearly in need of more attention, looked at least a little less limp. That’s really all I can ask for.

Except that I’m going away for the weekend. I promise I’ll water the plants before I go, but seriously…if they gave out licenses to garden indoors, mine would have already been revoked.

The tomato bed

Tomatoes in the Victory Garden

Tomatoes in the Victory Garden

Bed 10A. That’s the location, on the official Victory Garden Map, of the tomato plants. During my first morning as a volunteer, I kept wandering over there, checking out the tiny yellow blossoms, eyeing the green tomatoes weighing down the branches, and admiring the basil and Italian parsley companion-planted throughout the bed.

Then I noticed suckers growing from the stem junctures on some of the tomato plants, and reached down to pick one. Even in the chilly mist, there was no mistaking the smell that wafted up. That green, tomato-plant smell that I love so much? Turns out it’s just as good even when the garden isn’t really yours and you aren’t even going to get to eat any of the tomatoes.

I’m already looking forward to Saturday, when I might just stand by Bed 10A for as much of the day as the Garden Educator on duty will let me. I don’t think I’m quite ready to talk to the plants, but I’m definitely going to be looking for suckers to pluck.

Heck. If no one’s looking, I might just have to hug one of the plants. Trust me. In that neighborhood? That kind of behavior wouldn’t even come close to making me stand out in the crowd.

Victory! Or, I found a garden (for the time being)

When I looked for apartments near my work in Oakland, I wasn’t sure what I’d find. I knew I had some very simple, non-negotiable criteria: I wanted to be able to walk to and from work. I wanted a decent kitchen. I wanted something safe, and I wanted to try to avoid paying my entire annual salary in rent.

Slow Food Nation's Victory Garden sits in the shadow of City Hall.

Slow Food Nation's Victory Garden sits in the shadow of City Hall.

It might come as a surprise, based on the name of this blog, that having some space to garden or plant was not on that non-negotiable list. But I had this feeling that, somehow, I’d figure out a way to get my hands in the dirt, even if that way was unconventional.

Sure enough, a way presented itself. Slow Food Nation is bringing its foodie parade to town over Labor Day Weekend, and one aspect of the conference/festival /concert/celebrity-chef-sighting-opportunity is the Victory Garden planted in front of San Francisco’s City Hall.

Patterned after the Victory Gardens that fed the nation during World War II, the main garden at Civic Center is slated to provide fresh vegetables a few weeks after the Slow Food Nation gathering to those with limited access to produce in San Francisco.

The garden’s been attracting a little bit of nay-saying, particularly over at Garden Rant and the San Francisco Bay Guardian Politics blog. It’s temporary, they say. It’s expensive and a waste of resources. It’s a photo op. It’s a pale imitation of a real urban gardening program.

Victory gardener at work

Victory gardener at work

I went down to see the garden on my birthday, the day after it was planted, and I’ll admit, the temporary nature of the garden surprised me. I expected something much more permanent. But I have also noticed that I have yet to mention the project to anyone who hasn’t heard about it and who doesn’t think community gardening is a good idea.

Now, to be fair, a lot of people I talk to in my ordinary life are foodies, gardeners, or public health folks who are predisposed to applaud veggies growing just down the steps of City Hall. But this story is being told, and there are people making sure the story doesn’t end on Labor Day. Besides, Alice Waters is behind this, and I defy anyone to say she’s not vehemently committed to the principle of equal access to fresh, local produce for all. This might be a photo op, but awareness has to start being raised somehow.

Regardless, I’ll be able to get a firsthand glimpse of how the garden is growing and how people are responding to it. Starting Sunday morning, I take my first turn as a garden docent, a volunteer position that might include giving garden tours, answering questions about vegetables (Apparently the volunteer coordinator doesn’t read this blog…), and helping with garden maintenance.

I may not have my own garden right now, but I’m about to start experiencing the photo op up close, and I can’t wait to get in there and see what it’s all about.

A gardening season potentially washed away

One of the things that has been most strange to me about the Flood of 2008 coverage is that I actually recognize the landmarks. In the past, most of my flood experience has been virtual – I’ve watched the news and sympathized, even sent money for relief, but never actually recognized the locations involved. It’s a completely different experience, the recognition something akin to seeing an ex-boyfriend on the street with a new girl. It’s the same sickening drop in the stomach, no matter how glad you may have been to leave him behind.

Now the floodwaters are being to recede, but that means the recovery is just beginning. And what a recovery it’s going to be. After all, floodwater is dirty-nasty-foul stuff. Oh, toxic sediment, thanks for stopping by (not that you were actually invited to the garden party).

Yeah, speaking of that garden party, I had never given a second of thought to what happens when your home garden floods until I read the Johnson County Extension’s list of warnings and admonitions. The basics? If you had raw sewage in your garden, don’t eat the food. In fact, quit growing any more food, because now you have contaminated dirt. For 90 days.

There are some other suggestions from the Extension: Get rid of leafy greens. Don’t eat your strawberries. Discard anything that was covered with water, even if it was a root vegetable like potatoes, carrots or garlic.

I realize I’m not there to work in my old garden, but when I read that advice (wise as it is), I felt that corresponding sickening drop in the stomach. As if the flooding wasn’t bad enough already, the thought of missing the entire growing season (because a 90-day growing ban would, for all intents and purposes, cause just that) is pretty horrifying.

Very slightly delayed gratification

Right as I was leaving work yesterday, I started getting increasingly urgent messages from my friend and former roommate, Susan. She needed my number. She needed to call me. She thought she had my number, but somehow she did not. When she actually sent me a message via Twitter, I knew something serious was going on.

This is about when I noticed that I had a voicemail from Susan, who had apparently found my number. The serious thing, as I found out shortly thereafter, was a question popped, a ring delivered.

It seems that Susan and her fiancé, Don, went out to Roosevelt Island, which is smack dab in the middle of the Potomac River between D.C. and Arlington, Virginia on Friday, and after a picnic, he asked her to marry him.

But Genie, this is a gardening blog, you may be thinking. And even if you have just moved and may be awfully discombobulated, why are you telling us about the social milestones of your friends? Aren’t there plants to talk about?

Why yes, good people of the Interwebs. There are plants to talk about, and if you’d just hold on, I’d get to that part of the story.

As I was saying, the engagement happened Friday. But here’s the thing. It would have happened sooner, before Susan went on an extended set of business trips to Chicago and Ecuador, but for one tiny detail.

The day Don was originally planning to ask Susan to marry him, she beat him to the question punch. She asked him if he’d dig her a garden bed.

“Oh my God,’ I said to Susan on the phone. “A whole bed?”

“Yes,” she said. “Which meant he had to dig up all the grass.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I remember what a huge pain that process was. And how long it took. And I was actually helping. A little. Anyway, by the time Don finished, it was too late, that day, to take Susan to the island, and so he held off until there was time for an unhurried moment of surprise.

But now Susan and Don have a garden AND a wedding to plan. “And every time we eat our vegetables, we’ll think about how this all happened,” she said to me last night.

I can’t think of a better reason to delay something…even something so happy. To Susan and Don, I wish you smooth wedding planning, incredible veggies out of that garden, and as much happiness as you both can stand. Can’t wait for the Key West blowout!

I am more compulsive in other areas of my life

Apparently, over the winter, someone decided to throw approximately 1,000 small twigs into my garden plot. It’s lucky that, although I definitely have areas in which I exhibit great symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the garden is not one of those areas. Therefore, on Sunday evening, I picked about 428 of those twigs out of the garden before giving up and just deciding that the remaining ones provided some interest, and also a good challenge for the seedlings to come. The really strong ones, after all, ought to be able to push the twigs out of the way, right?

Don’t worry, Master Gardeners. I’ll pick more out in the next couple of days.

Besides the twigs, I needed to remove the clumps of grass that had infiltrated the plot over the winter, which is miraculous, because how the grass was able to be all sneaky like that underneath 20 inches of snow baffles me considerably. I also yanked any dead plants that would have come out if said snow hadn’t snuck up on me itself before I had time to clean much up last year.

Sage coming back to lifeBut there were signs of life. Besides the garlic and the aforementioned baby spinach that is just coming up all on its own, it appears that one of my sage plants is resurrecting itself. There were some green baby leaves that are destined to become tasty treats sooner rather than later.

I yanked the rest of the sage plants as carefully as I could so I wouldn’t disturb the newcomers, and took all the dead plants over to the compost pile. Then I set about turning over the soil, unearthing all manner of worms who were not particularly thrilled to see me hanging out. Then I got moving on dropping in seeds in my normal, laissez faire manner, starting with the chard, which has bony little seeds that I loved from the moment I saw them.

These are the cutest seeds ever.

After the chard, I moved on to the rest: spinach, rosemary, sage, Italian parsley and some green beans. Once I had put far too many seeds in, as usual, ignoring the wise advice of the back of the seed packet, I covered everything up. Then I stepped back from the garden plot, the sun setting behind me, and nodded. Oh, tasty spinach. Oh, tasty chard. Oh, delicious herbs. I hope some of you come up soon, despite my best efforts to plant you incorrectly.

Garden, then save the planet

Yesterday afternoon, I clicked on the link to Michael Pollan’s excellent New York Times Magazine piece on all the good things that arise from gardening—his focus is on climate change and the behavioral shift everyone must undergo to make any kind of difference in the daunting problem, but he makes the eloquent case about why we ought to all grow some of our own food. A few minutes later, an email came in from a friend in California, sending the article my way.

It’s a piece worth sharing, and not just because Michael Pollan is my hero. I wish everyone thought this way, and I realize that I’m speaking as someone who came pretty late to the gardening party. Heirloom Tomatoes (Yeah, I grew \'em myself)But now that I’ve lived a life where I can just run out to the yard and clip some herbs to throw in whatever meal I’m cooking up, there’s no going back, and I want everyone to experience the same thing. It really doesn’t matter whether you get your food at your local superstore or at a co-op or even the farmer’s market (although if you’re not going to grow it yourself, farmer’s market up, people, ’cause it’s good stuff, too)—the best, healthiest, most delicious, most amazing food is always going to be what you grew yourself.

For me, the connection Pollan draws to climate change is a worthy one, but the other connections he talks about—to the miracle of how something starts as a speck-like seed and becomes edible just with the addition of some sun and air and dirt and water, to the neighbors around you, to the land itself—are the ones that I value the most highly.

That being said, I fully agree with Pollan. If you make those connections, the larger one—the willingness to make changes that will benefit the climate without feeling like you’re yelling into some sort of howling void—will come easier, too.

UPDATE: You can also learn more about what the company I work for is doing on this front in my post re: the Pollan article for The GeoVoices blog.


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All words and images (unless otherwise credited) on The Inadvertent Gardener are © 2006-2008 Eugenia E. Gratto. All rights reserved.

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