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In 'heart of the city,' single cuke affirms glory of gardening


We harvested our first crop from the garden last week. It was a cucumber. While a single cucumber is not something that would excite the Luther Burbanks of the gardening world, its arrival gave my 8-year-old son a thrill.

Concealing his prize as he carried it into the house, the kid waited for the appropriate moment and presented the cucumber to his mother who reacted with the correct amount of astonishment. The harvesting of the cucumber was a highlight in what has been an up-and-down gardening experience for my son and me.

Ours is not a backyard garden that you can wander out to in your bare feet and tend to after supper. Ours is a commuter garden. To get there, my 8-year-old and I toss tools in the car trunk and travel to a fenced off section of Druid Hill Park. There, we and approximately 30 other folks without big backyards have rented plots as part of the city's urban gardening program. I waited several years on a list to get a plot and am glad to have it.

But getting to the garden has been an effort. Baseball games, lacrosse camps, and now swim meets have filled up the weekends. Originally I planned to run by the garden in the evenings after work. But often at the end of a workday I have garden guilt. The key that unlocks our backdoor looks a lot like the key that unlocks the garden gate. I stand at the backdoor, and fumble for the correct key, and the sight of the garden key sends a pang of guilt through me. "This weekend," I tell myself, "you gotta get to the garden."

Once I arrive at the community garden, I try not to look at other plots. It is easy to be jealous, to covet thy neighbor's garden. All around me are neat, fruitful rows of lettuce and beans, peas, squash, staked tomato plants, and even some artfully arranged berries. In comparison, my unstaked, free-range tomatoes, sprawling cucumbers and unruly cantaloupes and pumpkins look puny and undisciplined.

As I eye the neighboring plots, I chastise myself for being a backsliding gardener, one who weeds weekly, at best. But then my kid will holler as he discovers a big green tomato on one of our plants, and my mood brightens.

The kid has been a good worker, especially when it comes to battling the thistles. We haven't been able to grow any carrots, but we have done a bang-up job raising thistles.

The thistles were there the first Saturday we arrived. Our plot was covered with the tall, prickly weeds. It was a bright spring day, and the kid and I were full of energy. We attacked the thistles, hacking them down with a hoe, digging up the roots with a shovel, then raking out the debris. When we finished the afternoon by planting a half dozen tomato plants, as well as cantaloupe and watermelon plants, we felt like we were men of the soil.

After two rainy weeks and several Little League games, me made it back to the garden to find the thistles had returned. The 8-year-old was accompanied by one of his buddies. And the two boys relished the opportunity to attack the weeds with hoes and rakes. They wiped out the weeds, but in their frenzy they also got the watermelon and cantaloupe plants as well. Eventually they got bored, and retreated to the car, where they amused themselves by trapping flies in the trunk.

The kids were begging to go home but I stalled them and got in a few more licks at the weeds. To guard against yet another return of the thistles, I covered the bare ground with sheets of black plastic. Then, to keep the plastic from flying away in strong wind, I covered the plastic with rocks and dirt.

So even though our garden is demanding and unruly, it gives us pleasure. A soaking rain may ruin plans for a weekend cookout, but it is "good for the garden." The other night as my son and I were leaving the garden we scared away an intruder, a big white-tailed rabbit. It was a verdant summer evening. The birds sang in the swaying trees. And the Druid Park Reservoir was as smooth as glass. The nasty side of urban parks, the late-night shootings that show up in the police blotters, was overwhelmed, if only for a moment, by nature. The scene was so pastoral it confused my son. "This isn't the city is it?" he asked.

"This is the heart of city," I told him. And I promised that next year, we would again try to grow a watermelon here.

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