Friday, August 07, 2009
Like you, I’m still reeling a bit from the whole flipping-the-calendar-to-August scene. Who wants this summer to end? Let’s just say it: The cool, breezy weather has been pretty rockin’ amazing. Unless, of course, you’re a tomato who still longs for a blast of heat. I’ve spent a lot of time empathizing with vegetables this summer, since I’ve just returned to community gardening after 16 years away from a jointly-tended plot. This time around, though, it’s not the vegetables that have made this grimy and delicious work pay off. It’s the gardeners.
Now, usually, what I love about gardening is the solitude. I consider the contemplative hours I spend in my own small yard viciously lopping the heads off dead Shasta daisies and purple coneflowers to be nothing short of Prozac for free. So, the whole community aspect of the community garden wasn’t an instant sell. I knew a few really nice folks involved in the group, sure, but I also knew that signing on would mean gathering the mental energy to commune with total strangers, to jump into someone else’s routine, and to ask for help over and over. Kids are used to this taxing work – it’s the anxious edge of every new school year—but we grown-ups tend to let these adaptive skills atrophy. My optimistic 12-year-old daughter is the one who convinced me, finally, to sign on to the garden, and she’s been my steady dirt-mucking companion.
So, every Wednesday and Saturday morning at 7:45, I fill a thermos mug with strong chicory coffee for me and pour hot cocoa into another for my sleepy-eyed, ponytailed daughter. We grab our steaming drinks, load our empty canvas harvest bag with a few tools, and we amble the five blocks to the flower-edged community garden tucked behind the Potawatami Park greenhouses in the Renoir-dappled light of this soft summer. The walk is a sweet time to get caught up on the twisting plots of books she’s reading or her hilarious predictions about the upcoming school year. Sometimes we swing by to pick up my expert gardening partner, Gail, to strut the final stretch as a girl gang bristling with intimidating tools.
It turns out that community gardens are actually quite a comfortable place for experts to mingle with folks like me who love to eat but still have lots to learn about turning rattling seeds into a mealtime extravaganza. Unlike some community gardens, where every person has an individually tended plot as their private kingdom, our garden truly is communal, with all of us sharing the work and the produce, and setting aside some of each harvest to donate to local non-profits. The whole system is as organized as our tidy planting beds, with folks paired up to plant, tend, and harvest and share a particular crop.
I volunteered for the “brassicas” which I had thought was a kind of dinosaur, but which turns out to be the umbrella term for the broccoli family. And now, thanks to careful training, my daughter and I have the eagle eye necessary for harvesting the mini-flowerettes that spring up after each broccoli plant’s queenly crown is harvested, and can use twine to festively bundle the outer leaves of cauliflower over the forming heads, so they’ll blanche for milder taste and snowy beauty. We have not yet learned to love kohlrabi, which are also under my charge. Have you seen those things, looking like a turnip and the Sputnik had a freaky little baby? We gamely harvest them, offer them to others, and line them up on our kitchen counter, but loving kohlrabi – like loving some of the meanest greens in the community garden – is not a lesson I’ve learned yet.
What I have learned is how much I like my fellow gardeners. When you’re harvesting green beans, bent double, with someone six inches from your face and another six inches from your keister, proximity breeds affinity. With our hands busy with the simple but satisfying work of snapping veggies from vines, we often chat about our work beyond the garden, and I’ve learned fun, small insights, such as what it means if you’re a librarian to call someone “SUCH a cataloguer.” We also trade recipes, and so I’ve learned to vaporize zucchini in the oven under breading, and to whirl those bitter greens into a garlicky bisque so bilious it could serve as a stage prop on the Exorcist set.
But vegetables aside, what I’ve learned is how quickly strangers can become friends in the oddly intimate space of the early morning garden, with all of us slightly rumpled and dirt-smudged, and admiring the kids ambling around the garden who munch underripe grapes or wear cabbage leaf hats or eggplants as burnished purple epaulettes. As those of us anxiously awaiting the movie, Julie and Julia, already know, food is always as much about relationships as it is about nourishment. It’s people who put the “bon” in bon appetite.