©Meredith Pike-Baky, 2020

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As I pedal up the long driveway, I can spot the sunflowers from nearly half a block away. They tower over the tops of all the other plants in all of the other garden plots nearby, and I’m aghast at their splendor. Did I grow these beauties? They sway in a gentle breeze, some stretching their golden faces toward the sky, while others, large disks of deep purple-brown, hover over buds they’ve birthed like protective mamas. I’ve arrived at my plot to weed, water and take in all that’s happened in the last twenty-four hours. Have more dahlias come into bloom? Were rodents digging in one of the beds last night? New cucumbers ready to pluck? Have the watermelons put out fruit yet? Any ripe tomatoes?

After five years and five months on the waiting list, I was finally invited to select one of five available plots in our nearby northern California community garden. Lord knows I didn’t need more gardens. I already had five beds of vegetables in my back yard, a corridor of garlic, tomato and pepper plants in pots on the west side, and a mini-vineyard of several grape varieties along the east fence. But my soil is full of clay, there are rodents poised in the adjacent open space ready to descend and feast when I’m not looking, and I don’t get a full day’s sun in any of the spots, so my summer harvests are puny. A plot smack dab in the middle of the community garden was enticing. I’d never belonged to a community garden and was deeply curious about what it would yield. Who else gardened there? What could I grow? Would it be too much work? What if I failed?

The plot I chose had been neglected for many months and its previous gardener had left behind a mess of stakes, pieces of wood, netting, buried soaker hoses and waist-high weeds. There were also garden tools and an unopened bag of organic soil. I would first have to clear the plot, then ponder possibilities. It promised many days’ work. I began tentatively by digging up the millions of wild onion plants, one at a time, trying to catch the cascading baby bulbs before they started a new plant nearby. When I tired of onions, I moved over to the mint and yanked out long fragrant strands of spearmint and peppermint. The soil was soft and rich and easy to work. If I dislodged some of the multitudes of worms, I tried to return them to their earthy homes, following advice to “preserve their communities.” I pulled up the stakes, detached netting, unearthed brittle stalks and eventually uncovered five framed beds. 

My community garden extends over a rough half-acre 15 miles north of San Francisco. It is bordered by a school district office on one side and by a high school on the other. A cyclone fence with four locked gates encloses the garden and sets it apart from its surroundings. There is a scenic hillside behind the fence that encompasses a dog park and two rather unsightly elements: three storage containers and two dumpsters. As if to highlight the contrast, I once spotted a lone great blue heron high-stepping in the tall dry grass beside one of the dumpsters. 

Within the garden, the 68 plots are flanked on one side by a row of enormous pine trees, home to hundreds of songbirds and a couple of red-shouldered hawks that have launched babies into the bright blue overhead, calling to them frequently. There are finches, hummingbirds, quail, dragonflies, butterflies, gophers, voles, rabbits and rats. It’s a wild wondrous place in the middle of the suburbs. 

In 1844 the river basin in which my garden sits was part of a Mexican land grant connecting three ranchos in the Las Gallinas Valley, where Portuguese immigrants operated a dairy farm. A century later, from the late 1940’s to the early 1970’s, developers built schools, offices, shops and homes, some of which are mid-century modern models coveted today. On the opposite end of the valley Frank Lloyd Wright’s last design, the Marin County Civic Center, stands out with its long low buildings, sleek gold tower and recently refurbished bright blue roof. The community garden remains in its original form, a lush pasture of rich, fertile earth once grazed by cattle, worked by farmers and now lovingly tended by local gardeners.

The garden is administered by the incorporated city of San Rafael and managed by a Senior Recreation Supervisor (who is not a gardener) in an office a few miles away. When I paid my annual fee of $71, I was issued the right to work a 15 X 30-foot plot, about the size of a narrow swimming pool, a gate key and a 3-page packet of “Community Garden Rules and Regulations.” Among the twenty rules were dates of “required workdays,” plot etiquette expectations and water restrictions. Gardeners must plant “no less than 75%” of their plots, keep them free of weeds, post plot numbers prominently, limit city-provided watering to fifteen minutes per day, use organic products only, maintain common pathways clear and tidy, install no permanent structures (including trees), keep compost bins within plot boundaries, harvest crops punctually, remove all winterizing material (straw, coverings, etc.) completely, and use only handheld hoses. Furthermore, no animals are permitted. “Failure to comply with any of the rules will result in a forfeiture of garden privileges.” I wondered why the guidelines were so unfriendly. If gardeners had been difficult to manage, the tone of the rule packet surely didn’t motivate them to behave. Rather, it seemed to do the opposite. But I was a newcomer, so I set out to be an obedient gardener and wait to see if my fellow-gardeners were as rigid as the list of directives appeared.

Because I adopted my plot shortly before the pandemic shelter-in-place, the community workdays did not happen, so I didn’t get to meet fellow gardeners until I began to clear the weeds. People strolled by, observing the tangled chaos of dead plants and staked structures with empathy and encouragement. Amy told me that it was impossible to remove the ubiquitous wild onions, so she’d thrown out all the soil from her original beds and replaced it with new onion-free earth. I considered doing the same thing, factoring in the increase in work and expense it would entail. Was it worth it? From our first encounter, Amy had lots to say, chatting even when I was out of range, and, still talking, welcomed me with a head of fresh celery. Stuart brought me a yellow rose, Heinz offered a spindly tomato plant and Maureen gave me a potted perennial with bright orange flowers. Most surprising were Bill and Jean, a retired couple who walked slowly and bent over with difficulty. They got down on their hands and knees and began digging up my mint. They showed me a helpful weeding tool and offered me the use of their cache of pitchforks and weeders. I was surprised by their generosity, mostly because I suspected they had complained to the manager earlier about me bringing my dog by the garden on a neighborhood walk. “NO DOGS ARE ALLOWED IN THE GARDEN!” they’d shouted as my dog was drinking water. I’d been observing Amy’s barking dog left in the car and Stuart had brought his small terrier into the garden each time he came, so I thought that my dog would be accepted. When the Senior Recreation Supervisor called to tell me someone had complained, I stopped bringing my dog within the garden borders or even tying her to a nearby post. I asked Stuart about the couple whom I’d expected had complained and he admitted that he and his dog kept a low profile and avoided certain gardeners. I took that to mean it was OK to break rules if you knew how. I was too new to know how.

It’s curious to ponder what’s mine, what’s yours, what’s ours in a community garden. Wendy Johnson, a widely-admired local gardener-mentor and author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate describes the establishment of the organic farm and gardens at Green Gulch Zen Center, a thirty-minute drive to Muir Beach from our neighborhood. Johnson emphasizes that we are “shepherds” of the land we work. Nobody “owns” our gardens, our plots, our land, so it’s important to take extra-special care of what we cultivate by nurturing the soil, staying organic, respecting the surroundings. In this way we honor those who’ve come before us and those who will follow.

I decided to keep planting simple this year so I could follow the weather pattern, get acquainted with varmint issues and learn how to garden in steady sun. I assigned limited crops to each bed: wildflowers in one, tomatoes and cucumbers in two, dahlias in a third and my six-year-old grandson’s request for watermelon in the final bed. We scattered sunflower seeds among the tomatoes. 

Now, months later, my beds have produced abundantly. I gift more sunflowers, tomatoes and cucumbers than I keep and if the variegated lobes poking out between the scalloped leaves are any indication of what’s to come, I hope to have double-digit watermelons at summer’s end. The dahlias are glorious. I pause often these days, in the middle of the summer season, curious about the people, plots and past of my garden’s surroundings. The only previous knowledge I had of community gardens was from reading Joan Gussow’s This Organic Life, a collection of tales about her attempt at year-round self-sufficiency from her large home garden in the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York. In order to discourage a neighbor from helping himself to her carrots and to enlighten her community about the benefits of organic mini-farming, she started a community garden in an adjacent parking lot. With a small group of fellow-members to oversee the garden, the committee developed beautiful and productive vegetable plots and hosted informal region-wide gatherings to share information and garden resources, since most of the members were new to growing food and all of them new to organic gardening. 

I’ve noticed a range of “ownership practices” at my community garden. Most of us stick to our plots, grow what we need and want and experiment. A few others collaborate with fellow gardeners or spend hours clearing pathways of weeds and varmints, planting and pruning community grapes or fig trees and tending an herb garden open to all. Maureen recently set a gopher trap in my plot where she ferreted for a rodent tunnel on an afternoon when I wasn’t there. In her search, she spotted the first ripe cucumbers and displayed them prominently for me to harvest on my next visit. One could say she “invaded” my space. She’s just as freely loaned me her umbrella stand, her watering wand and her assistance in weeding the creeping vines that are flourishing in the pathways around the perimeter of my plot. That’s shared space, but it’s primarily my responsibility to keep it weed-free. I appreciate and understand the generosity displayed by tool loans, extra plants, surplus cucumbers, flowers, unusual tomatoes. What astounds me is the selflessness in working and weeding outside one’s own plot, spending time and muscle power and kindness gardening for others when one’s own tasks are never quite done. 

So in this spirit, I’ve tried to be more generous. I carried wood for Sybil when it was too heavy for her and gave Mike poles that I could have used for my radically overplanted tomatoes. I baked gluten-free muffins for Maureen and I’ve offered Heinz everything from sunflowers to cucumbers. He declines it all, claiming his three gardens provide what he needs. Stuart continues to bring me roses, Patricia and Shirley pass on huge batches of chard, and Chris invites me to help myself to her sleek yellow zucchini anytime. When I began, I hoped to grow enough vegetables to feed myself and my family for the summer months and maybe a few weeks beyond. I realize at summer’s midpoint that I have succeeded at that. I’m also discovering that the garden is offering more community than what I anticipated. What I didn’t expect was to be harvesting the generosity of other gardeners, especially when my welcome from the administration felt so daunting and detached. In addition to tomatoes and helpfulness, I’ve tried to be more generous with my attitude. I was initially aghast at Sybil’s abundance of plastic flowers, bright metal frogs, unicorns, fairies and helium balloons posted, mounted and flying in her plot. She told me she bought all her trinkets on weekly sales at the Dollar Store. I thought this was economical, but not very attractive. Then my grandkids expressed delight at Sybil’s decorations, and I’ve withheld judgment ever since.

As we ease from a hot, dry, smoky summer to a cooler, (hopefully) calmer fall, we gardeners are becoming more familiar with each other’s schedules and styles and we seem to be increasingly connected, generous, helpful. How fortunate I’ve been to be able to bike from my home to the garden, remain socially-distanced from others but in conversation and vegetable exchange. I’ve made all sorts of resolutions for next summer: fewer tomato plants, more watermelons, perhaps one or two additional beds, regular weeding. For now, I’m grateful for the variety of organic vegetables, the new acquaintances and for the genuine kindness we’ve cultivated together.

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©Meredith Pike-Baky, 2020

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Meredith Pike-Baky is a writing teacher, gardener and grandmother. She has taught in the U.S. and internationally for many years and is currently co-facilitating a writing retreat in Girona, Spain with Greta Vollmer. She has recently published a Peace Corps memoir, Tales of Togo: A Young Woman’s Search for Home in West Africa. In addition to her garden plot, BAWP has been a lifeline these last few months.

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