The young urban gardener

I used to live in the suburbs, where I had a biggish garden on a smallish lot.   

Now I live on the third and fourth floors of a rowhouse in the city, and I have no lot at all.   I’m still a gardener, though.   I’m just learning how to garden a little differently. 

These days, my main garden canvas is our 5’ x 15’ fourth-floor porch.  We moved into this condo last May; I planted up the porch within a week.   2020 being the year it was, I went for color: big, bright, gaudy annuals, as many shades of pink and orange as I could cram into our relatively modest space.    I found joy and solace in this new garden in the air, the way so many people did in their gardens in 2020. 

In 2021, I have been able to start earlier.   In late March I made my first garden center run, and loaded up with pansies and some potted bulbs.   The pansies did great; the bulbs, not so much.    The tulips survived – at least some of them.   I planted six or seven in this box: 

An enterprising squirrel dug up and ate at least half of them.   

Indeed, there are plenty of varmints in the city.   In the suburbs, raccoons invaded the trash; here, we have rats (and from what I’ve seen, these Boston rats can match their suburban raccoon friends for both wit and size).    We have the good fortune to live in a neighborhood rich with parks, large and small; and bunnies, garden nemeses of my suburban days, abound.   Sometimes I see them scampering down the very urban sidewalks. 

And then, of course:  squirrels.   In my veggie patch they had the infuriating habit of taking a single greedy bite out of every nearly-ripe tomato on the vine, ruining all but finishing none.   And here they are again, devouring my tulip bulbs in a high-wire act, four stories off the ground. 

I am too impressed to be annoyed.   I can only say:   Squirrel, my hat’s off to you.   I admire your derring-do.   And if, when you get back to ground level, you happen to see your friends, the bunnies, please tell them I said:   HAHAHAHAHAHAHA 

Urban gardening is a public act.   In the suburbs my garden could be seen by my immediate neighbors and perhaps the occasional curious pedestrian.   But while my garden in the sky is quiet and feels pretty private, last year it got noticed.   Neighbors stopped me to offer compliments.   My garden made me new friends.   

There are plenty of others with planted porches in my neighborhood.  But the real action is on the front steps.  My neighbors (and sometimes their gardeners) have a flair for the magnificent potted planter.    They are everywhere in Boston’s South End.    

I have taken it as my mission to learn how to be a better container gardener.   I take pictures; I take notes.   Two weeks ago, as planting season was just taking off, I could contain my enthusiasm no longer, and rushed off to the garden center for the second time this season.  The selection was a bit picked over, on a Sunday afternoon; but I managed to walk away with a nice assortment that mirrored the combinations I most admired:   a mix of foliage perennials and annuals, a few trailing vines, and some pansies for general exuberance.    

They look good enough from the front door looking down: 

But from the street, they look like nothing at all: 

As more planters and urns have filled with glorious displays over the intervening weeks, I’ve come to understand my error.  I planted my front-stoop pots according to the container gardening instructions I’ve read in gardening books, leaving about an inch between the soil level and the top of the pot, to accommodate water and preserve the soil.    The best stoop-level planters, however, are filled with soil right to the rim and mounded a couple of inches higher toward the center – little pot-bound berms, bare spots covered with moss to keep the soil from washing away.    

“Tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend when he was a spry 68.   My low-lying porch plantings are a rookie error.   I was a pretty good suburban gardener; by big city gardening standards I am but a rube. 

For the better part of two years I have been on a waiting list for a number of local community gardens.    Last Saturday, I got an email from the coordinator of my absolute favorite one, checking in with those of us on the waiting list – because this year she expects to have a number of plots available, which she will distribute on May 1st. 

I immediately composed a response to tell her just how interested I still am.   Then I took a deep breath, erased a few dozen exclamation points and de-capitalized at least some of the letters, and hit “send.”   

I may or may not have walked by the garden every single day in the week since (and twice last Sunday). 

I may or may not have clocked the time it takes to walk from the garden gate to my front door.

I may or may not have ordered seeds, beans and cucumbers and zinnias, just in case it works out, because the garden centers might sell out of seeds before the beginning of May, and then where would I be? 

Getting a community garden plot would let me return to the kind of gardening that got me hooked in the first place.   I adore vegetables, on both plant and plate; kitchen gardens were my first horticultural love.  Of course, a return to earthbound gardening will mean I will once again be at the mercy of those demonic rabbits.   I should not have been so quick to mock them:  bunnies are spiteful, and they will no doubt seek revenge. 

Even back in the familiar territory of a veggie patch, I’m sure that I will have much to learn in a community garden.  There will be new garden protocols, different ways of accessing water.   I will need to design my plot to accommodate others around me, plant my bean poles so as not to shade my neighbors’ plants.   I have heard that some community gardens can be the locus of intense interpersonal drama.   Like all urban gardening, community gardening will involve exposure to human as well as meteorological elements.   

Either way, I’ll find out whether my turn has arrived on May 1.  This year, May 1 falls on a Saturday; as the first Saturday in May, it is World Naked Gardening Day.   And this being 2021, I plan to celebrate the day as I never have before.