I woke up this morning a little stiff. I knew this was coming because I spent three hours in the garden yesterday. Tim helped haul away the winter debris that I’d pulled over the last two weeks, and the slate was cleared for this year’s structural developments.
I’m copying a trellis from one of my community-garden neighbors. It’s a single wrought-iron panel, 24″ wide, braced on both sides with t-stakes buried deep in the bed. On this panel, the gardener has strung cotton twine madly all over the trellis, weaving the strands together to create layers of hammocks from about 8 inches off the ground to the top spikes.
On this trellis will grow peas, beans and cucumbers. The harvest that comes off this thing is unreal, all from a bed about 3X4″. I’ve been wanting to duplicate this for years, and this year is my time. I’ve noted the growing medium she’s brought in, large bales of plastic-wrapped compost, and her technique of blanketing the bed with burlap to prevent weeds from slowing her planting. How she prevents the seeds and sprouts from evisceration by rodents is the next step I’ll watch for in our abundantly critter-populated forest garden.
Gardening has been a practice of learning from others. From my first year back in 2002 sticking pumpkin seeds in the ground expecting a crop big enough to act as a fundraiser for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop to this year’s conversation with a seasoned gardener who tended grapevines on a kibbutz in Israel, every year I discover a larger patch of what I don’t know. In St. Charles, one garden neighbor had linked together eight plots, which he surrounded by deer fencing. It was a happy enclave of plants I had previously never seen, from leeks to fava beans to tomatoes grown on a trellis, eschewing cages for the more workable solution of pole supports.
That gardener shared his harvest with the rest of the community, sending his small boy running over to my plot with two hands full of leeks for me to try. Later there was fava beans, homemade wine and a handful of oregano seeds I still have in a jar. They’re not viable anymore, but they make me smile.
This year’s garden work is particularly satisfying. Last year’s summer was so fraught with tension, snarled in the overlapping knots of pandemic restrictions and nightly protests in our city’s streets, the combined stressors of confinement and encroachment making our souls itch. It was a fitful summer, with the long anxiety of autumn 2020 ahead. As we witnessed the nightly protests, saw the tightening of authoritarianism in our city and across the country, we held our breath through the season most Portlanders anticipate like Christmas. Once we make it through to April, spilling out into fields and forests, dunking in rivers and mountain lakes, splashing on the coast is our reward for enduring the rainy season.
But last year, triumph was tempered by multiple wildfires, literal and figurative, that made many of us wonder if we would survive the year in any recognizable form. What would get us first? Illness? Isolation? Unemployment and houselessness? Our nation’s decline into fascism? Teargas sprayed into our homes? Fires that destroyed entire communities and hungrily moved our way?
In the garden, the pandemic ended our regular community work parties, stretching the lengths between masked individuals to six feet apart, ending the potlucks that introduced us to the guy down the path who’s growing only delphiniums. Resentment and mistrust grew among the community, as we lacked our normal means of gathering and learning each other, and learning from each other. Our passing conversations were about survival, how we were doing, who we knew who was sick, which gardeners needed assistance because they needed to isolate to prevent someone in their household from being exposed.
Once the fires approached, and the city closed all the parks across Portland out of safety concerns, the garden lost even the hint of safety and stability. If we couldn’t even go outside, if we couldn’t put our hands in the dirt and maintain our rituals of growth and nurturance, how would we get through this? Gardeners seek this activity not just for inexpensive vegetables, but for the meditation of outdoor work and focused energy, for the puzzle of maintaining soil acidity and healthy crops, for the mental exercise and balance that comes from connecting the mind and the body and the earth.
We did get through it. And in the process, we learned not just how to endure, but that we were capable of enduring such comprehensive suffering. We know now what we can sustain, and that knowledge will help us through the next wave of difficulty. There will always be more, maybe not like last year, but someday. If we made our way through this, we will make our way through the next.
Hacking my way through piles of blackberry vines, sweat dripping down my neck in the sunshine, I was happier yesterday than I have been in months, maybe even years. The park was busy with dog walkers and hikers headed into the woods, but few gardeners joined me within our fenced community. There’s work to do to shore up the fences, to maintain the paths leading up to the tool shed and down to the massive raspberry patch that’s sprouting reliably over in the corner.
Just as I’m packing my things, a couple arrives at a nearby plot and starts moving their piles of decomposed leaves from one section to another, revealing dark soil ready for new plantings. I watch for a while, happy to stretch my back cramped from weeding, and see how their technique of using yard debris as a winter cover has yielded nutrient-dense planting medium. The plot, while dormant over the winter, was actively turning waste into food, allowing the settling of gravity and rain and worms and bugs to filter what was needed into the ground to be used for new growth.
This is the way of nature, I suppose. Allow what’s dying to sift away and become part of new life. That darkness creates a place for growth.
I sit for a moment in the sun, breathing its warmth into the corners of my lungs. It was a good, hard three hours, and I’m ecstatic, filthy and exhausted. It’s planting season, and the next six months hold mysteries I haven’t even contemplated. But what will come will be managed. I know our strength now, and that we’ll find a way through whatever happens. I have hope not that everything will simply be better, but that we will make it through to the other side as a community, as a people, no matter what we face.
We will once again talk over hyssop and sample golden raspberries ripe with sun, help each other clear out a patch of invasive lesser celandine, share snacks of fresh picked beans and grapes tended by experienced hands. We’ll learn from each other and meet for a technically illegal glass of wine at dusk.
There is hope anew.