BY DENISE FINKBEINER HOLDEN
VIRGINIA BEACH — I’m no farmer, but I can get stuff to grow. Whether I can get family to eat all their vegetables is another matter.
I planted myself out of our Strawbridge-area yard a while back, sometime between my Japanese garden obsession and an experiment with natural plantings. There’s no question it is both more efficient and less disappointing to buy fresh ripe produce from a local farmer, but I like a challenge. Now a local community garden is helping my growing ambition.
Nimmo United Methodist Church at the intersection of Princess Anne Road and General Booth Boulevard sponsored the Giving Garden project a few years ago. Area volunteers grow, harvest, donate and even prepare “farm to table” meals from the garden’s produce for those in need of nourishment of the body and heart. It’s a wonderful project that is still developing and defining itself.
That project seeded the Nimmo Community Garden, a puzzle of plots nestled between the Giving Garden and the church cemetery, sort of an en plein air sermon of “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” My friend and gardening partner, Peter Lee, and I ponied up for three plots in the center of the action.
We watched with excitement as Farmer John Wilson, formerly of New Earth Farm, gently tilled the historic land for us, miner bees buzzing around the tractor wheels. We watched as irrigation was installed to make things easier for agricultural recruits. We watched a delivery of semi-rotted horse manure tumble from a tractor onto the pavement near the garden. Until that point, farming seemed wholesome and bucolic. When all those tractors drove away and the hand tools came out, it turned into work. After machines had done all they could do, we were invited to get in there and plant.
While musty steaming manure was being folded into the ground, I realized he was tilling over wiregrass and assorted noxious weeds that I normally carefully pluck in my own garden. Everything was piled together in an untamed tangle of actively growing mood spoilers. I was agitated that I couldn’t clean up the messiness of the raw earth. I realized I was a city planter, used to dirt coming in colorful sterilized bags from Home Depot. It was going to take an adjustment to think like a farmer.
The garden is organic. Organic is a fancy word for sweat. You don’t need to look that up. Just trust me on this.
I had gotten used to taking out whole areas of weeds with Roundup, creating pretend perfection with convenient plastic edging and dyed mulch, pumping up plants on Miracle-Gro. None of this was going to be accepted by my new crunchy neighbors.
To help the team and ease my growing feeling of being engulfed, I suggested we fortify the perimeter and create paths with cardboard topped with wood chip mulch. Several of us filled our cars with cardboard wrangled from stores and emptied from garages. I brought all the boxes from a tenant’s move-in. On days volunteers helped the garden grow for those in need, there was a mess of us sweating in the sun, gift-wrapping the open dirt.
A few weeks in, many plots had been gleefully stocked with home-sprouted and store-bought containers of peppers, zucchini, tomatoes and squash. Some plots hadn’t been touched since the day of the big till, and they sprouted weeds fertilized by horse manure. My husband Tom and I wanted our efforts to pay off so we backed up the initial dusting of manure with a cubic yard of mushroom compost we purchased on our own.
We borrowed our neighbor’s tiller and ground the dirt into submission, clay, weeds, worms – all of nature’s particles made uniform. Peter and I took a box of seed packets and sprinkled for color. I say that because after a couple more weeks, all those seeds came up at once, along with all the ignored weeds. It was a verdant sea of leaves, identifiable only by texture and shape.
Peter’s strategy was to cull the plants he didn’t want. My strategy was to dig the whole thing up and tear the whole thing apart, keeping only plants I wanted. I guess that says something about our approach to many things. You have time to get philosophical when you’re stooped over working by inches.
Wandering around the garden was a window into people’s minds. Some had little decorative fences and baubles. Some portrayed miniature battlefields with straight rows tightly planted. Many had been reading the same articles judging by the arrangement of marigolds and nasturtium flowers among their delicate squashes and cucumbers. I worked in the evenings when I could watch the swifts circling above and see the sunset on a wide horizon, something I could not do in my stockade-fenced neighborhood. Dragonflies perched on the water spigot towers.
On trash days, I dragged bags of grass clippings to our plot to smother weeds in the areas between my seedlings and manage the moisture and ground temperature. I found a rusted and bent frame on the curb in our neighborhood, perhaps for a punching bag, and I declared that it now was a frame for pole beans.
I claimed it was part of the “reuse and recycle” spirit. Tom claimed I was digging in people’s trash.
I roped any summer company we had into visiting my garden and helping twine beans and cucumbers. I even went further with this life experience – measuring how far it was for me to ride my bicycle to the garden and back. It was two miles, now part of my workout regimen.
The weeds were addressed. The plants were following nature’s calendar. Other things arose to distract me for a while.
The first time I rode over on my bike after the break, I admired the flowers that were full and blooming, zinnias and cleome visited by butterflies and at least three kinds of bees. I found a huge toad and placed him under a zucchini leaf.
That’s when I saw it – huge, green and long – a four pound ingredient for dinner. I looked at the cucumbers, the tomatoes. All had started to bear fruit. I filled my bicycle basket, tied the zucchini to the top with vines and rode home with my rewards. I made chocolate zucchini bread and zucchini chips with cheese, sauce, gumbo and a light cucumber relish.
Three days later, there was more than double that first picking, and the pole beans had started to bear fruit. I started leaving produce on doorstops without warning. I mixed produce into pancakes, soup, dessert. I fed it to my koi. I got emails from Adrianne Palmiere from the next plot asking me to keep my pumpkin under control because it was taking out her corn. It had grown so tall it hid the water spigot tower and covered the path between plots. I pulled the pumpkin out and put it on the compost pile. It was a diplomatic move, a gesture from my little country to her little country.
When summer bounty comes in, it seems to come in at once. We know this. Who else knows that? Bugs. I think the bugs started on the south end of the garden and munched northward, a green battleground without sanctuary. My zucchini were some of the last to fall. I found stink bugs on everything. Japanese beetles made lace of bean leaves. I mourned little, vowing to plant something else.
Sweat dripped off my nose from my bike ride during one visit. I moved bean plants aside to check the beets were ready. Something flew across my face. It was a rather large wasp. I backed away and reached for some tomatoes, which crept across the ground after I gave up on stakes. Another wasp flew nearby. It was about two inches long, black with light yellow stripes. I can ignore paper wasps, but this guy was not pleased with my presence. He buzzed my head a few times. I moved way over to the sunflowers. He checked that move too. They were everywhere. I considered eating cereal for a bit.
When I went back that evening, swifts circled and dragonflies seemed busy, but all the wasps had left. That’s also when I realized almost all the Japanese beetles were missing. There were a couple caterpillars, but not like before. I found out from my brother that the giant wasps were cicada killers and highly unlikely to care about my presence, a huge relief. Now I could just watch them with interest and not panic. I have since seen a few types of wasps dragging away some of the garden munchers.
Melody Jeffrey, a Nimmo Church member who has taken on the responsibility of organizing the Giving Garden, told me once that she has learned to think like a farmer. It is not a project with a beginning date, a list of steps and an end.
Farming is a cycle, a progression. It’s more like a carousel ride. You catch it while it is moving.
I won’t ever be a good farmer, but I’m enjoying my ride on the carousel.
The author is an artist, gardener, wife and mother of three kids she says are now smarter and stronger than she is. She is a graduate of First Colonial High School and Old Dominion University.
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