I follow a gardening blog that gives out weekly writing prompts. The most recent prompt asked readers to write about their first plant. I thought about it and I couldn’t remember my first plant. So I’m interpreting the prompt differently by thinking about my beginnings as a gardener — which was approximately two months ago.
Here’s my first garden project. There’s San Francisco.
My decision to start gardening was just that: a decision. I didn’t undergo a gradual transformation from toddler playing in grandmother’s garden to growing a bean plant in a paper cup in high school biology class to buying my first house plants for my college dorm to gardening in my first house. I actually did do all of these things, but still, the title of “gardener” isn’t something that I unintentionally assumed like I have “woman,” “biker,” or “daughter.” The role of “gardener” is something I’m desperately trying to assume.
The front garden bed in Vermont (I couldn’t grow shit, but I built that bed, so you know, suck it or whatever).
I knew gardening was a skill I wanted to acquire after living in Vermont for five years. In Vermont I learned about our troubled food system. I learned that most the food in the grocery store is produced with the aid of rapidly depleting fossil fuels, used to both produce and transport the food around the country. I learned about chemical fertilizers and genetically modified foods, about the connections between local food and local economy. My neighbors were farmers, my roommates were farmers and food entrepreneurs, and we had four massive garden beds that my green-thumbed housemates used to grow food, herbs, and flowers. I felt that they were the experts, and so I let them do the the planning, seeding, starting and planting, and I chipped in where I could — by turning over the garden beds in the spring, carrying heavy things, watering, throwing in five bucks for the seed order, drinking beers on the porch while dolling out words of encouragement, and harvesting — if “harvesting” is happily plucking shiny cherry tomatoes off their vine every morning on my way to retrieve my bike and ride to work.
I was intimidated by the collective green intelligence of my beautiful, tan, brawny farmer roommates. I was intimidated by gardening itself. I seemed too difficult. “You just stick a seed in the ground,” they said, “It wants to grow!” they said. I was sure my sexy, freckled farmer roommates were lying, that there was finesse involved, an intuition that I was lacking. I felt like pepper plants might have antenna for my bullshit the same way kids do for nervous babysitters, that they somehow would know I was completely fucking clueless and shrivel up and die just to spite me and highlight my gardening inadequacy.
The exploding garden beds that I can’t take any credit for at my house in Burlington, Vermont.
I managed to enjoy tomatoes off the vine, backyard pesto, kale, and mesclun mix for years without ever having to learn how to grow a thing. Everyone else was so conveniently obsessed with growing food that me and my lack of know-how flew under the radar. When I decided to leave Vermont and move out west, I knew that I would make growing food part of my life. I was glad that I wouldn’t have my farmer roommates to rely on as my vegetable-dealers anymore. The crutches would be gone. It was time to grow my own.
I moved into a beautiful, south-facing farmhouse in the small town of Arcata, California with my boyfriend. There was farmland in both directions and cows everywhere; it was the perfect backdrop to my Northwest starter-homestead visions and dreams. We painstakingly dug up the massive, overgrown and neglected garden. The house was situated in a flood plane and and the dirt came up in big, wet slabs. We found broken dishes, rotting logs, beer cans, and the soil itself seemed too wet and dense to be any good to grow in. After only 40 minutes we were both sitting in the mud, Chris had completely lost interest, and I felt my visions of being a gardener starting to whither and die. I would no longer be that girl in a sun hat and gloves, holding a trowel or whatever those mini-shovels are called, shoving my face into a floral, smelly plant that I would, at that point, know the name of.
Chard starts and mesclun mix in the pallet garden.
Two days later Chris got an offer for his dream job is San Francisco. We decided to say goodbye to our barely-established life in Arcata and move to the big city. I was at once thrilled and jolted. Chris had his dream job to look forward to, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do many of the homestead-y things I wanted to do. But I knew I could still grow some food. I knew that San Francisco was groovy, that there was surely urban agriculture projects to get involved with, community garden plots to rent, that I could start a rooftop or kitchen or fire escape garden. Maybe I wouldn’t be tanning hides or building rainwater enchantment systems or whatever, but I could grow plants.
I happened to move into an apartment with dozens of empty terra cotta pots and a small protected roof space with a decent wind block. I made a run to the hardware store for soil and a watering can, asked the guy at the register where I could get the best seeds from, and requested a seed catalogue online. Then I went to work.
A row of mizuna in my pallet garden
I started a lot of my seeds in jiffy pellets, a common method for container gardeners
It’s been about two months since I started gardening on my roof and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s coming along. I’m learning so much, and I think the limits imposed by container gardening are great beginners who are intimidated by the task. Mostly I’ve learned that growing things it’s just as easy as my former farmer housemates told me it was. The hardest part, — as with most DIY projects, exercise, and self-improvement projects — is just doing it. I don’t have to do any of the sprouting, rooting, growing, or fruiting. The plants want to do all of the hard work. I just have to stick the seed in the soil, water it, and give it some love.
This is a “salsa bowl,” a tomato plant in the middle, a ring of cilantro and green onion around the edge, and a soon-to-be-incorporated jalapeno plant that’s not pictured.