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The Garden Begins

Plant stores are supposed to be fun places. They were always fun for my mom, and since I was with her, they were fun for me too. But standing in the middle of one with the intention of buying plants and planting them in my own real garden, for the first time, I was terrified. I could feel my throat closing up and my breath getting shallow. Sure, I had bought plants before, but they were for taking home and killing in my apartment. These plants were supposed to go in the ground, like serious gardening. And more than that...they were going to go in a public ground where everyone would see everything I did, know everything I was doing wrong, be much better at plants than I was, and I would be publicly shamed as a Bad Gardener. People would know me for the Plant Killer I was. 


I thought I would cavalierly reach out my hands and grab a bunch of plants and seeds and leave and it would be easy. But I was frozen.  “I don't even know what I should be choosing,” I realized, in semi-terror. San Francisco has so many subtle microclimates and is so its own zebra when it comes to planting seasons, that the usual words on seed packets and plant labels are almost meaningless here.  “Early spring?” When the hell is that, to a San Francisco plant? Also, there's the Sunset zones (we're zone 9, except for when we're not, and you have to know when that is), but then within the city there's so many little zones. Was the plot in the same zone as my house? Probably not—tomatoes invariably died in the fog, wind, chill, blight, infestations, and greyness they experienced chez moi but thrived out here, but if this weren't my zone, what zone was it?  And...“partial sun?” How partial are we talking here? —Another challenge was that I had no idea what the real profile of my new garden plot was. It was in the Marina, so it's sunny. But it was behind some four-storey-tall bay trees and a big hill, so it's shady. But it's in a large exposed area known for bearing many full-sun crops, so it's sunny. But my particular plot is right next to a great big mature tree with a broad leafy canopy, so it's shady. But there's a nipple-high old rosemary plant growing in its corner, so it's sunny.



I felt my eyes crossing in fear and my heart pounding. Something snapped in me. “You know what,” I said to myself, “I'm gonna find out what works by...trying things out and seeing what works!” I was horrified by my own suggestion. I would probably end up killing things that way, and everyone would point their fingers at me and shame me, and I would deserve it, for having caused the deaths of innocent living beings.



And then I took a deep breath and dove in.



I picked out some seeds, having no idea which ones would work best, and a few plants in pots—a parsley, a snapdragon, a calendula, a lemon balm. I bought some gloves and two trowels. Here goes.



When I arrived at my new garden plot in the community garden, at first I thought they had taken it away from me because of my negligence and given it to someone else, because the plot, that had been mostly compost-covered ground and a few shoots and sprouts and leaves (and one huge old rosemary in the corner) around Thanksgiving, was overrun with greenery. It took me a minute to compare the green and burgeoning garden of now with my mental snapshots of what had been growing and where, back then, but finally I realized that this was the spring growth of what was already there, left to its own devices for two and a half months.



I'll just clear up a bit of this and be done in no time,” I thought, imagining that I'd spend a few minutes weeding, would charmingly place my new plants and seeds in the ground like a Stepford Gardener, and would be tootling on my way in an hour.



I yanked.






This giant green invasive thing had taken over much of the northern part of the plot and was swarming out of its confines and threatening to engulf the entire garden. And when I dug into the ground, I found that it had lived in that spot long enough to also take over all the dirt, to at least two feet down. I tried to jab my trowel into the dirt and could not, because the whole thing was one solid tangle of roots, all the way down up to my armpit. This was what made me realize that this thing was either an invasive weed or an invasive thing that had been planted a long time ago by somebody else that I didn't want in my garden. I felt bad ripping the thing out, but this was a one-hoss garden plot. There wasn't room in it for both the invasive green thing and anything else.



I spent almost four hours jabbing and yanking and grubbing at the solid tangle of roots, and when I was done, I had tilled an area about three feet long by one foot wide (by two feet deep). I learned that there was rich beautiful dark dirt down until the part where everything was sand—appropriately for a garden built on the edge of the Bay. I learned that my initial notion of just taking out part of this invasive green thing would never work, because the way it had taken up all the available real estate for as far down as I could reach showed me that if I left any of it, no other plants could live there. I thought about roots, and how I'm always going on about wanting to put down roots, and I laughed at this plant and its entrenched Aretha-Franklin-sized roots. Nothing was going to move that plant.  It was worse than a blackberry bramble.



It would probably take two weeks just to clear that top third of the plot. Nobody would be planting anything for a while yet.



But something magical happened, while my world shrank to those roots and those roots alone.



When I originally faced the plot, I was far more terrified than in the plant store.  This was the serious real deal, this was the garden, and it was public, and any mistakes I made were going to be made in full view of everyone who knew better. I was scared to touch anything at first.  I was afraid a grown-up would catch me and get mad. And since most of the people who had plots were at least twenty years older than I, or more, they totally counted as grownups. And they were all real gardeners, and I was some fool who didn't know anything. I acutely wished I could be doing this in the privacy of a back yard, where I could make my mistakes on my own and if my plants came out looking bad, nobody would laugh or blame me. The whole time I was there, I kept expecting someone to come snap at me and get me in trouble.






Pulling out those roots took so much attention and effort, there wasn't much of me left over to devote to my inner neurotic hamster. The scared voice grew less and less frequent as I paid more and more attention to getting one more trowelful, handful, armful of roots out. I realized I was so busy actually doing something that I also had nothing left over for wondering about what was going on in the usually-fascinating world of my phone. “Can this count as meditation?” I wondered.  “It's certainly annoying like meditation is, it's analog, it steps me out of my daily life, and it provides a unique space for mental decompression and energetic integration. Sounds like meditation to me.”



“I'm going to make this the It's Ok to Do Things Garden,” I thought. “The theme of this garden will be, It's ok to learn by doing, it's ok to try things, and it's ok not to already know how to do something.”



The afternoon grew chilly and grey around me and I noticed once again that where we direct our attention defines our experience. It was cold, and I was aware of the cold, but I did not define myself by the coldness because I was too busy caring about something else.



Nobody came to scold me or make me stop. But a couple hours in, somebody came and introduced herself as Linda, the new owner of a nearby plot. She came with a large expensive baby lemon tree, and said that this was her first time and she was brand new. “Hahaha,” I thought to myself. “Now I'm the old-timer! I've totally been doing this, like, a hundred and twenty minutes longer than she has! What an adorable baby gardener she is! I hope she will eventually turn to me for my wisdom that I have garnered over my aeons of experience.”



I remembered helping my mom in the garden as a kid. But it's different when this time, you're the adult, and the power and the responsibility are yours alone. —I realized the reason people probably weren't coming to get mad at me was because I was (slightly) over five feet tall, therefore they assumed I knew what I was doing. I felt like I was masquerading and getting away with something. “They think I'm a grown-up...I won't dissuade them,” I chuckled to myself.


I remembered volunteering in the Arboretum and coming home and crying from fatigue, feeling like my body had been run through a rock-crusher.  But that was different.  Six months of fishing moss out of pots with a plastic fork so carexes could breathe.  They weren't my carexes, and there was no emotional motivation or plot arc to the process, so it wasn't fun the way this was.


I remembered volunteering in the Permaculture Farm and coming home and crying from fatigue, again feeling like my body had been run through a rock-crusher.  That was real field work.  Laboring in the squash vines and the manure, back hunched, hands raw, hot sun.  That was what taught me that I didn't actually want to do this in real life, and that one volunteership was plenty.  But that was different too, because it wasn't my own.  I had no reason to care about those squashes.



I felt an honest DH Lawrence-esque slowness creep into my body. I felt my IQ sink with the slowly drooping sun, as I turned more and more into an animal of the earth, capable only of the most primal understandings of the important things in life. The earth. Plants. Food. Sex. Sleep.  Sentences composed of single one-syllable nouns. What? There was something else? Not in my worldview, there wasn't.



I kept hoping Itai and Aviv would show up. But they did not. I hoped Aviv would eventually show interest, but I didn't want to force him.



When the cows lowed in the distance and the swallows were on the wing, I tossed my old faithful scranletter over my shoulder and wended my way toward home, smelling of hay, muck, and the good earth, and ready to tuck in to a trencher of coarse bread and whatever my trusty wench had made.



Or not. I was not actually a farm hand from Cold Comfort Farm, but I sure felt like one! In my imagination, I was wearing a sweat-stained billowing homespun shirt, my hands were coarse and reddened and square, and I was a big beefy lunk designed for heavy farm labour. I made secret thanks that I did not have to garden in order to survive, and that I could do it like a game. I thought of the people in the Little House books, up before dawn every day, spending their lives laboring in the fields and tending to animals, unless they were cooking, cleaning, shooting things, dealing with life-threatening illnesses or pestilences, or getting chased by wild animals. I was lucky to be a rich post-millenial city girl, who could garden just for funsies.



I was covered in dirt, but as I walked home, I didn't feel like I was grubby. Instead, as I watched the occasional woman pass by in clingy black yoga pants (exactly like ones I myself had worn just a couple days ago), blithely displaying the precise shape of each half of her butt for the world to see, they looked oddly clean to me. I felt a subconscious class-distinction rising up within me, that must have been part of everyday life for most people for centuries. They were clean, so they were higher class than I. They were clean, so that meant they must be richer than I, lived lives of leisure and gentleness, they were probably smarter than I, I, I, who might not have any fancy book-learnin' but who knew how to muck out the pig-sty and make sure the roosters got fed, I, who knew how to harvest the wheat and how to birth a lamb, I, who could scranlet more'n ten acres in an afternoon, that's right....



It was funny how quickly reality could slip into fantasy, all of it turning on tiny impulses.



Back home, I realized I would have to be the trusty wench as well as the farm hand, and go put something in the cauldron. But when I put dinner on the table I laughed at it. Lentil stew. Rough rye bread, the kind you could use as foundation stones for houses. An apple. A piece of cheese that could have come straight out of 1700. I said a secret thank-you for living in a world where I flick a switch and the light turns on, whenever I want, and I turn a knob and the fire turns on directly under the pot and then turns off just as quickly. I said a secret thank-you for the fact that I could be planning to make myself some new clothes that were all about the visible integrity of the cloth (when money came along), but that I did not have to make my own clothes, I could just do it for funsies.



I wondered why I was planning to invest so much into a garden that would only be mine for a few months. I felt a little wistful. I had waited for this garden so patiently for eleven years, and now that it was finally mine, I was probably going to be leaving. I would put so much time and money and work and love and energy into the ground and I would make it beautiful with flowers and herbs and vegetables, and then just when it was really feeling like it was mine and not the new puppy any more, I was going to have to leave, and hopefully to a new country where they wouldn't want me to bring my plants with me on the airplane...and even if I did, I'd be moving to a totally different climate.... “Why am I doing this, if I'm just going to leave?” I asked myself. It made me sad to think that I would invest so much in putting plants into the ground and they would be growing and happy and then the next person to come along would probably rip them all out, so they could have their garden.




I decided I was doing it to be doing it. For what little time we had together, it would be better to have done it than not to have done it at all. 


That's my usual answer to life.