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Grow Thyself: Meditating on the thrills of the urban gardener

Gardening, Memoirs & Miscellany, Road Trips Add comments

By Dennis Rodkin

It was a gorgeous late-summer weekend, and the new people in the house next door to ours were busy schlepping boxes inside from their back porch. They looked hot and tired, so my wife and I decided to make them feel welcome by offering them some of our tomatoes. The weather had been great for tomatoes, and we plant them in super-fertile compost, so we had way more tomatoes than we could eat. How nice of us—how downright neighborly—to think of the new neighbors.

It was either that or eat tomatoes on our sandwiches, tomatoes on our delivery pizza, and tomatoes on our Wheaties for another week.

We picked a nice assortment of tomatoes—we grow the big kind plus cherry tomatoes and romas, the mid-sized pointy ones—and wandered over to the fence. “Hey, how about some fresh tomatoes, you guys?” we called in our best Welcome Wagon voices. Before our new neighbors could even answer, somebody who lives on our other side popped his head up from among his own tomato plants and yelled, “Hey, is somebody over there taking tomatoes? I’ll give you a bucket full of them.” It turned out we were all too late; somebody from across the street had already been over to welcome them with a big supply of fresh, juicy red tomatoes.

Visions of homemade tomato Pop-Tarts flashed before my eyes. Meanwhile, our new neighbors must have wondered how many more neighbors would show up to welcome them by dumping excess tomatoes in their laps.

In my neighborhood on the western edge of Rogers Park, it’s the gardening—and the gardeners—that make the place feel like a neighborhood instead of like just another bunch of houses and apartment buildings all clustered together. We meet over tomatoes, leaf-raking, and shared seedlings. Most of us were partly attracted to the neighborhood for its relatively big, almost suburban-sized lots with room for a vegetable garden, flowers, shrubs and some big trees to relieve the cramped, built-up feeling of the city.

It’s a city neighborhood with all the usual problems, and we work together to keep things okay. We fought to keep the city from building a school in Warren Park; we keep our alderman’s phones ringing about abandoned cars, gang graffiti and other irritations. But few things get our block club heated up like the mysterious tulip raids that hit our street last summer.

Shortly after the tulips opened, somebody started sneaking around and picking the blooms off. A few disappeared from our front yard each day. That weekend we found out that the same thing had happened to two or three of our neighbors along this side of the street. My wife hatched a theory that the culprit was Julie, who lives directly across the street from us. Julie’s house faces north, so her tulips were in deep shade most of the day. They weren’t as big and impressive as the ones blooming in full sun on our side of the street. Maybe, my wife figured, Julie was deep down such a competitive monster that she was plucking everybody else’s tulips to make her own look better by comparison.

My wife works when the soap operas are on TV, so sometimes she finds herself dreaming up real-life soap-opera plots like this one to make up for what she’s missing.

Anyway, we had to throw out my wife’s theory when Julie’s husband fingered the real culprit. He was looking out his front window one day when he saw a little girl, maybe five years old, wander up our front sidewalk and grab a handful of tulip. He sprinted out the front door and followed the little girl around the corner to her house, where he filled her parents in on what she had been doing.

Around here, virtually everyone has tomatoes and tulips. It’s hard to have a yard and not have those two easy growers. But that’s where we all part ways. From my office window, I can look out at a row of several back yards, each in its own distinctive style. This is sort of a live-and-let-live neighborhood where everybody’s welcome, and that attitude is visible in the row of back yards I can see. No two look alike, but as far as I know they all sit perfectly well next to each other.

Behind ours is a house whose owners are big-time vegetable gardeners. They have built walk-in cages around their two 10 x 10 vegetable plots to keep the birds out. West of us is the home of a graphic artist and an architect, a couple whose finely tuned artistic sensibility shows all over their yard, from the picture-perfect combination of bright yellow tulips and purple grape hyacinths against a dark green hedge, to the pergola they have just built that looks like a piece of the set for a Merchant Ivory film. Next door to them is a six-flat, where the landlord mows the lawn but the tenants trim around the edges with tomato plants and annual flowers, making a little garden where there would probably otherwise be weeds. East of us is where the new people live. When they bought it last year, the house had nothing out back but lawn and two trees. This spring, they announced they were sod-busters and they started digging up about half the grass back there. It wasn’t entirely clear why they dug where they did until I looked out my office window one afternoon and figured it out. They had removed curved chunks of the lawn on both sides of their rectangular back yard. The grass that remained was clearly the shape of a woman’s torso.

The goddess, they claimed, had guided their rototiller.

In the middle of all this is our back yard, my own private retreat—the antithesis of the concrete city just eight miles down Clark Street. My wife and daughter live in the house with me, but at six months old my daughter is too young to play outside much. She apparently figures it’s better to spit up on the couch, which can’t be cleaned, than on the back lawn, which can. My wife, on the other hand, could go outside all she wanted. But there’s no Clinique counter in the back yard, so why should she bother? That means I get to do whatever I want out back (so long as it doesn’t involve nudity—the fences are very low on our block).

It’s hard to describe the style of what I’ve done out there, unless “hyperactive” is a style. Like me, my yard is always in motion. There are several dozen varieties of perennials, vegetables, trees and shrubs—so many different kinds that I can’t remember most of their names. From April to October, there’s always something in bloom, and the plants attract birds, bees, butterflies and bugs. I’ve put two chairs in the middle of it where my wife and I can sit and eat ice cream on summer nights. This afternoon I took my daughter out and let her pull fragrant leaves off the citrus mint, run her hands through the long grassy blades of the foxtail sedges, watch a bee hover just beyond our reach.

While we sat out there I fast-forwarded a few years to the day when she can toddle along the little trail I laid out through the shrubs and perennials, sit on the little log benches and watch the butterflies on her own, pick flowers by the handful, chase her cat from the warm place where he sleeps under the pussy willow.

I have a lot of hopes for her future, but mostly this: I hope she comes up with some good tomato recipes our neighbors can use.

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