I find it difficult to write about gardening.
It’s like tomatoes. Eating the fruit is fine. Lovely. Easily the most popular plant in our community garden. Everybody loves them. We harvest bushels of them every year. Eating the leaves is problematic, however, because tomatoes belong to the nightshade family.
Nice one, evolution.
Community gardening is like that. The idea of it is grand. The practice is a little more complex.
It’s complex because it involves having to deal with people whom I would normally edit out of my life. I have no time for rudeness or passive aggressive displays of temperament. I choose my friends very carefully. Yes, they have to be clever, funny and reasonably well read, but civility is the baseline.
Rudeness and passive aggressiveness are the engines that fire community gardens. It’s true. Ask any community gardener and they will tell you. Gardens are cauldrons of seething resentment, years-old petty rivalries and political shenanigans that would make Machiavelli blanch. A person wandering unsuspectingly into a community garden meeting might be forgiven for thinking that most people were there solely to rejoice in the opportunity to be unpleasant to a wider range of people.
I used to be very involved in my community garden and I was in demand for the simple reason that I know what’s a weed and what isn’t. This is important knowledge because people join community gardens for a range of reasons and knowledge of gardening, or indeed any desire to learn what’s required to maintain a garden, is low down the list.
You can see what’s happening, right? You can hear the snarkiness seeping into my tone? I can feel myself growing more and more acerbic as I recall the years of insults and slights. The shouting, the ugly emails. The public listserve shaming. All over issues that I’ve completely forgotten.
The anger I remember. The rest has slipped away.
And I stayed away from the people in the garden this past year because I had enough to deal with. My ex-husband had enumerated my faults to an exhaustive degree. I didn’t need anybody else weighing in.
But I was in the garden today and several other people were there. This was bad planning on my part. I normally choose my garden hours to avoid others. But today I had a task that needed to be done. I had to turn the compost. It could not be put off.
The cast of characters in our community garden changes every year, but there are some constants. And the people who knew me were happy to see me. And I was happy to do a little weed identification for them.
And I had had a solitary weekend. It was by my own choice, but still. Too much solitude is not good for the soul. So I was happy on Sunday morning to be back in the garden. Pointing out weeds. Pinching the suckers off tomatoes. Indulging little light watering. Getting caught up with my neighbors. Hoping that the kids who were there would catch the gardening bug from their elders as I had done from my father.
I like gardening. It’s just gardeners that I don’t like.
Oh, hang about.
Because when I started writing this down, thinking about all the anger and pettiness and just plain ridiculous behavior over the years, I started thinking too about what the garden had given me. And as usual, I have everything backwards.
The garden, in many ways, saved my life. Because of it I have lasting friendships. Those friendships were forged in very hard physical labor. We built the garden from scratch, which meant bringing in all the topsoil by hand. We didn’t have a water supply, so we had to jack a fire hydrant half a block away and fill our rain barrels that way.
Water is heavy. So is topsoil.
Back in the pioneering days, to reward ourselves for all this, we used to have parties that would only make sense if you slipped the word bacchanalian into the sentence. We would do it every week. Slap some food on the grill, turn up the music and go for it, all sunburn and aching muscles and sweat.
After 9/11 we gathered in the garden with candles and we couldn’t think of anything to say, so we just stood there. Same with Hurricane Katrina. We went to the garden because we couldn’t think what else to do.
I’ve danced at three weddings because of friends I met in the garden. I’ve knitted hats and sweaters for the children of those marriages. Gardeners helped me through this year—even though many of them have moved away, they were present with phone calls and emails and visits and offers of sanctuary. In very important ways I’m still standing because of gardeners. The mid-Westeners are my next door neighbors because we met in the garden. And I haven’t written about the South Africans but they’ve been there all along. Generous, gracious, loving. Unflagging is the word for them.
So being in the garden again today, after being away for so long, made me think about my life. About the milestones that the garden has marked. And how you can’t really tell which parts of your life will turn out to be good or which parts will turn out to be bad. All of which is useful knowledge, in a philosophical sense.
So now I’m thinking. Maybe I’ll go back to the garden. Take the good with the bad.
Maybe it’s time.
Because the good is always exponentially better than the bad.