Eatocracy's Managing Editor Kat Kinsman attempts to vegetable garden on a roof deck in Brooklyn, NY in USDA Hardiness Zone 6b. Feel free to taunt, advise or encourage her efforts as this series progresses.
I have a rotten knack for turning any pleasurable pastime into an exhausting and pricey project and in doing so, sucking all the joy and fun out of it. Gardening is no different.
It started in college as a cheap, meditative hobby that kept me grounded in the midst of academic mayhem, and occasionally introduced a vitamin or two into my ramen-based body. The undertakings grew grandiose and far less calming as I got older and set down roots in futon-free apartments with my name actually on the lease.
What was once a matter of nestling dollar store seeds into soil-filled buckets on the roof, or poorly deer-proofing my $15-per-year community garden plot next to the town's sewage treatment plant, became an expensive indulgence. Then it became an obligation.
New York City has a way of cooping up its people in little containers, stacked neatly just a few feet from one another, but never cross-pollinating. For a big chunk of my late twenties and early thirties, I freelanced from home and did the usual amusing, but dead-end dating. I'd often go days at a time chatting with friends and potential fellas online, but remain mute, save for a croaked-out "thank you" when the cashier at the coffee shop handed me my usual egg and cheese sandwich.
In my Brooklyn apartment building where pets were disallowed, a living, budding, blooming gnarl of tomato vines was the closest thing I had to steady companionship. The responsibility for their upkeep was a passion and a distraction – and then something began to wither. I'm pretty sure it was my sanity.
I'd gotten to a point where I'd begun to invest some serious cash in hardware devoted to my hobby: an indoor growing cart with lights, an elaborately-hung chandelier of containers strung from my fire escape (the landlord had a thing or two to say about that), mail-ordered heirloom seeds from far-flung lands and all manner of eco-friendly, pesticides, fertilizers and organic tinctures.
And yeah, I sang to the plants. It’s not as if anyone was going to hear.
But about ten years ago, I dated a man who dumped me at the height of tomato season. Sad, sure, but he’d never especially dug my dirt fetishism. OK, scratch that, he was kind of a jerk about it.
He mocked my belief that even though Datil peppers are never going to answer back, they're happier when sung little ditties about the Scoville heat index. There were loud harrumphs at the suggestion that we hit a later movie showing so I could shlep home to water my okra before the midday blaze. I was often accused of anthropomorphizing. (There are worse crimes against the world.)
In the past, I’d certainly managed to cultivate love and lettuce at the same time without either withering, and I know now that not getting (or at least mildly tolerating) my obsessions means that you just don’t get me.
But at the time, I was considerably less clear-headed and Teflon-hearted about the rejection. It seemed like an indictment against my entire being and the possibility of anyone ever loving it, and I needed to get some miles between myself and the weird little home I’d made.
Minutes after the final hang-up, I was on an airline website. My finger hovered over the “purchase” button for a flight to Reno, when it occurred to me that in my fragile state, missing him and my grown-from-seed tomatoes at the same time would be just too much to bear.
I stayed in Brooklyn, and it was lucky that I did, as I spent the bulk of the ensuing weekend battling a nasty and garden-wide bout of late leaf blight. I sat on my fire escape until daylight, with swiftly diseased leaves and branches crumbling in my hands like teeth falling out in a fever dream. I was at the doors of the garden store the moment they opened in the morning, and at home in a matter of minutes, dousing all visible foliage with a fairly serious copper fungicide.
The plants bounded back. The gentleman in question did not.
And midway through the winter, my heart began to thaw to someone new. He cleared space on his windowsill for some thyme I’d grown for him. A year later, he insisted to the real estate broker that our new apartment have space outside where I could plant a proper garden.
He built raised growing beds on the roof deck, hauled sacks of soil up the stairs and smiled at the wedding vow in which I made him promise to put up with my strange food and gardening experiments unto the end of all time. And of course I got weird about it.
In some rough and rocky part of my psyche, I’d planted the seed that if this new garden didn’t flourish, I’d be failing at a lot more than fennel, corn, melons, squash, potatoes, beans and tomatoes. So I charted and plotted, composted and calibrated, de-slugged and weeded, deadheaded and obsessed until my now-husband came out to find me slump-shouldered and sobbing next to a blight-leafed Black from Tula tomato plant I’d been unable to save.
“I can’t feed us,” I said. “We can go to the store right down the street,” he said, and hugged me.
And the next spring, instead of painstakingly tucking seeds into multi-celled flats of peat pellets to germinate indoors under grow lights, taking soil pH readings and hand-tweezing aphids from my Beaver Dam pepper leaves, I threw caution to the wind.
I tossed seeds in the dirt, got my nails dirty only when I felt like it, and watered and weeded from time to time. Not everything made it, but all in all, I enjoyed the best, biggest, brightest bounty of produce of any season yet.
All I had to do was step back and let it happen.
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