I live in a rented New York City apartment. The only outdoor space I have access to, besides the sidewalk, is the paved alley alongside my building. And, like many of my neighbors, I use this shared outdoor space for all sorts of activities that don’t fit in a small apartment. As I write, a teen-aged neighbor is practicing his Junior ROTC drill in the alley, and I can hear the thud and clank of his rifle stock as he learns to twirl it in tempo.
It is not an unpleasant place to live. But there is nothing green — no soil, no grass, no plants of any kind — except the street trees I can see from my front window.
This year when my friend Tamara invited me to share her backyard garden, I was delighted. She and her husband Karl have always been incredibly generous with their space. They love nothing more than hosting dinner for 25 on improvised tables and street-find chairs.
The garden is large by city standards. The vegetable patch is 8 feet wide and almost 25 feet deep, and there’s a patch of grass, to boot.
This year, we laid out the vegetable patch together. Neat, orderly rows were prepared for tomatoes, string beans, carrots, beets, and radishes, and every kind of leafy green we could think of. There’s also an herb patch with oregano, chives, rosemary, sage, and lavender. I lobbied for nasturtiums to fill the planters on the paved part of the yard.
And last Saturday, Tamara, Karl, and I were joined by another neighbor, Heather, and we did our first planting. The herbs and seeds for root vegetables went into the ground, as well as a selection of greens. We’re probably over-ambitious, and all of us are amateur gardeners, but it was good to be outdoors on a sunny afternoon bickering over mulch and debating the merits of the soil. The elderly Greek couple next door chatted with us over the chain-link fence while they tended their own patch, with its fig trees and grape arbor.
“Spiritual” is not a word I use very much these days. It’s too nebulous, and encourages sentimentality. But I am interested in the actions that bring us back into balance, that make us whole human beings. And planting the garden with friends does that in two ways.
The most important way for me is how it brings us into a deeper sense of community and friendship. The garden is something we will share — the work of setting out the plants and tending them, as well as the pleasures that will come in a few weeks as we begin to eat the fruits of our labors. And it’s been made possible by two people who are intent on living a shared life with their friends, an antidote to the competitive and atomized culture of this difficult city we live in.
And the second: it restores balance to my life. To be able to touch the soil. To walk barefoot outdoors. To look at the weather not just as the planet’s plot to make me lose my umbrella but as a living system that will nourish — and threaten — the small plants we’ve put in the ground.
Living a city life is compartmentalized and far from natural cycles. Having a garden redresses that balance.
Christopher Calderhead is an artist and writer living in Astoria, Queens. He is the editor of Letter Arts Review and teaches at Bronx Community College and the Pratt Institute.