Monday, April 4, 2011

Gardens I Have Known: Part 3

This covers not a single garden but a whole gardening community.  It is also about the first garden that was actually mine.  There are small plants, big ideas, and casual acts of sedition.

While attending the state university in the City of the Crosses I lived in the student family housing.  This was unusual because I was not married and did not have children but the university allowed it because they had more housing than families.  This worked well for me because I enjoyed having my own room, a neighbourhood full of families and children, and the quieter living that can't take place in the dorms.

Many of the other occupants of the student family housing were, for whatever reason, Asian families much larger than the standard American nuclear family.  And most of these families, independently and without any organizing force, maintained gardens tended by the older members of the family.  I believe that these gardens (I counted more than thirty of them at one point) had a profound effect on the feel of the neighbourhood.  What could have been little more than a complex of units, storing students when they weren't in class, was turned into a pleasant place where people and plants both grew to be useful.

Almost all of these gardens overgrew the small walled-in yards attached to each housing unit, spilling over into the more communal grassy areas near the sidewalks.  Year round there were both common and exotic greens, peppers, and other vegetables growing and being harvested all around the neighbourhood.  Tomatoes and peppers were always drying in the sun atop mailboxes and green utility boxes.  Where the University had intended bermuda and crab grass to grow I got to see Bok Choy and Bitter Melons being cultivated.

You may have noticed the conflict in that last sentence.  There was a difference between the University's intention and what was being done with the land.  I don't believe that the gardeners saw it as an act of rebellion (There was land that wasn't really being used, so they put it to good use) but they went against the University with every seed they planted.  They were, unwittingly, an army of guerilla gardeners.  Frequently there were notices posted on every door in the neighbourhood stating that gardens were not allowed outside of the yards provided.  As near as I could tell, though, this never stopped anyone.

In the midst of all this excitement and inspiration I decided to plant my first garden.  With tools borrowed from my grandparents I painstakingly pulled up all the weeds and grass rooted in my little yard.  I turned as much manure and garden soil as I could buy into the sandy soil.  I laid down pathways and boarders built from rocks and bricks that I scrounged from around the neighbourhood.  I planted radishes, carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach, peas, swiss chard, and anything else I though would be ready to harvest before the end of the semester.

Very little actually grew in my garden.  Perhaps there was just never enough organic matter in the soil.  Maybe I didn't water it well enough.  It could be that I just planted everything at the wrong times.  Whatever the reason, in the four years I worked on that garden I think I probably harvested no more than 6 woody carrots, one swiss chard plant, three pounds of snap peas, and a few leaves of parsley.  It was never exactly the urban farm I had hoped for after seeing what my neighbours grew.

Still, I think fondly of those gardens.  I admire the ingenuity and perseverance of those gardeners.  Someday I hope to tend a garden that is a riot of produce like theirs.  Even though I have never tasted one, that garden will probably include Bitter Melons, my personal symbol of true guerilla gardening.


  1. I love it! Dorms (and apartments) can be so sterile--inhabited but not really lived in. I can see how gardens would instantly make each unit feel like a home, and the whole place like a real neighborhood. I hope you manage to grow your seditiously Bitter Melons one day soon.

    By the way, I don't know whether you've ever come across's a virtual "meeting place" for garden bloggers. Another blogger has written a good review of its pluses and minuses here. You write so well--if you want a wider readership, I'm sure it's out there, once people find you.

  2. I went ahead and signed up on Blotanical. I figure it really can't hurt. However, I'm sceptical. Beyond the geographical search, I'm not sure it offers much that I don't already have through a blogroll and commenting on blogs I follow. Maybe I'll find more uses for it in the coming days.

    The post you linked to (with a broken link, btw) also mentioned Folia, which I'm going to try out. I like the idea of a social network designed to help me keep track of my plants. Unfortunately their interface seems really chunky and inconsistent.

    I guess what it boils down to is is my motivation in blogging here. It's primarily for myself. I don't expect my writings to be interesting to most people and I certainly don't expect to make any money off a huge readership. Mostly, I wanted a place to keep a garden journal, keep track of when I plant what, and sort out why exactly it is that I garden.
    Of course, if I make some friends along the way, especially friends who can give me local gardening advice, so much the better ^_^

  3. Hey Duke City Digger! Thanks for visiting my site! Are you still living in Las Cruces or are you in The Duke City'—Albuquerque now? Growing is more hospitable Albuquerque as it gets sooo hot in Las Cruces in the summers. Reminds me of growing up in Phoenix and trying to get vegetables growing there-almost impossible. Nice to see younger people involved in gardening and all things sustainable!

  4. Oh, yea. What do bitter melons taste like. I've often wondered..

  5. I'm up in Albuquerque now. In general, I like the weather alot better up here. Fall smells like fall.

    And I don't know what bitter melons taste like. I've been very curious too. I've read that they taste "bitter, but nor unpleasantly so".