Gardening for treasure in Fells Point

City Diary

June 21, 2000|By Jennifer Grow

I'VE BEEN having fun in my garden, much to my surprise.

My garden is part of a community garden near the corner of Lombard and Wolfe streets. The garden gate is made out of two wooden doors that have been refinished and lettered in both Spanish and English. "Upper Fells Point Community Garden," it reads.

All around both doors are painted bright tomatoes and eggplants and carrots. There are roughly a dozen plots in the garden. I inherited the space from a friend last spring who was reluctant to give up her garden, yet did not have the time to devote to it.

My first city garden was beautiful with everything that grew the previous year and decided to return. I had wild flowers and a purple bush of lilac, mint, and rosemary, sage, tarragon, chives and a yellow rose bush. None of these was my doing. I added tomatoes and basil, oregano and peppers. I watered my garden from the fire hydrant on the corner and used a sun-rotted watering can to sprinkle my plants. I mixed Miracle-Gro and prayed.

My garden is not like the gardens of my youth, my father's carefully timed and tendered gardens with mounds and rows and strings and markers.

We lived in the country where the garden was quiet. When my father would fling an occasional rock deep into the woods, we'd hear it knock into a tree and fall flat into the leaves. Maybe a chipmunk would scramble away.

My $10 city garden has too many rocks to throw aside. The soil is mixed with gravel and old bricks and chips of glass, hinges and bottle caps. Occasionally I dig up an old baseball or Barbie leg or bone. There used to be a Dalmatian next door who stood on his fire escape two stories high and barked over the fence at me. His territory was vertical as he raced up and down the metal stairs. I'm told he ran away. Now there's a puppy.

I garden to the sound of other people's lives: breakfast talk and music and Saturday morning cartoons filter through the neighborhood's open windows. The only time my garden is somewhat quiet is when the traffic light turns red and the street noise slows while cars and buses idle for a time.

Through all this, I learned to have faith that plants can root themselves in even the saddest soil, the toughest city dirt. They can thrive despite the glass and gravel, bricks and mud. Though my garden cannot sustain all things, it grows some things exceptionally well. I grew tomatoes where a rowhouse used to stand. My herbs flourished; they love poor soil.

Just as good fences make good neighbors, good weeders make good neighbors, too. My friend, Mike, said recently, "Maintenance is not glamorous but it needs to be done."

He wasn't talking about gardening at the time but about other city neighborhood projects. He's right. The more I keep my weeds to a minimum, the easier it is to manage my garden and keep it beautiful and productive. My garden is ripe with metaphors.

Despite my success last year, I was having a hard time becoming enthusiastic this spring to start all over again. I was not looking forward to tackling my weed patch alone. I asked several friends if they wanted to share the garden with me. Most everyone was interested, but no one had the time to devote to it.

And so, one evening, I went to the garden by myself and began to till the weeds with a rusted, bent hoe. While I worked, I noticed a pair of eyes watching me through the wooden fence. "Hi," I said. Before I knew it, several neighborhood kids had climbed the fence and were talking to me. They were dying to help. "You think weeding looks like fun?" I asked. Their back yard is a cement slab.

"Oh yeah!" they replied enthusiastically.

I'd never met kids willing to weed before, so I invited them into the garden. They were so eager and had a wonderful time digging in the dirt. They delighted in every worm and potato bug they dug up, every moth and butterfly that flew toward the lavender. Since then, my helpers -- Brittany, Megan, DeCarlo and Ian, ages 9 through 14 -- have met with me in the garden to weed and water. My plot has truly turned into a community garden.

We've planted basil and oregano, some tomato plants and peppers. The Barbie leg and an old metal hinge sit next to our favorite plants like sculptures. We made a bird bath out of a dented old dog bowl propped up on bricks. The kids would also like me to put in a blackberry bush, some corn, a picnic area, a swimming pool and more flowers.

DeCarlo expects we will uncover a buried treasure one of these days. He keeps digging at the weeds, hoping. We get 20 pieces of gold each, he says.

He doesn't know I already unearthed the treasure the day I started weeding and he and his siblings popped over the fence. It's the kind of treasure that would never have grown in my father's garden.

Today's writer

Jennifer Grow is a writer who lives in Butcher's Hill.

City Diary considers issues of interest to Baltimore's neighborhoods.

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