As Joni Mitchell put it, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” That’s why it took a lack of outdoor space to get me interested in vegetable gardening.
When I lived in Boston, I took my back yard for granted, crowding it with grills and smokers and patio furniture, letting my dog use it for his business, and always telling myself, and my downstairs neighbors, that I’d surely plant something there someday. I never managed more than a few pitiful shade plants, but on my front balcony I did cultivate containers full of basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, thyme, oregano and rosemary. As a single cook, I relished the ability, for a few short months, to avoid buying those clam-shell packs of herbs in supermarkets.
Then I moved to the District five years ago, and my list of five must-haves in a condo — proximity to work, affordability, dog-friendliness, gas cooking and outdoor space — was reduced to four. Now what would I do? I sold the gear, took my dog to a nearby dog park. Suddenly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the garden I’d never have. In my new apartment, there is not even a big enough windowsill, let alone enough sun, for potted herbs.
Just a week after moving in, though, I was walking down 15th Street less than two blocks from my new home when I saw it: a sign sticking above a line of shrubs that said “Temple Garden.” Behind it was a half-block square of green, a community garden.
I opened a little gate and took a walk around. Nobody was tending a plot at the time, as I followed the little mulch-covered paths and ogled tomatoes, eggplant, chard, peppers, basil and plants I didn’t even recognize.
I knew it immediately. This would be my savior.
A visit to the Web site and an e-mail exchange burst my bubble. Yes, there are 80 plots, but there is also an 80-person waiting list, I was told. And the turnover was only about 15 to 20 plots a year, usually because people move out of the Zip codes required for membership. You don’t have to be good at math to see how long that could take, but no other community gardens were near me, and no others had openings, either. I put my name in.
Three years later, I got the nod. It was July, and someone had left their plot mid-season. I was in.
I enlisted co-worker and friend Jane Black, another single cook with more interest than experience in gardening, to split the sweat equity and whatever meager bounty might result.
And we fumbled around. I had gotten some good firsthand lessons in gardening over the previous several years from my sister Rebekah and brother-in-law Peter, who in southern Maine grow, and put up, enough food to sustain themselves year-round with precious few other food purchases. But I had never put those lessons into practice, and Jane and I were both impatient.
So we took some shortcuts, especially when it came to soil prep and weeding. We muddled through: planting a quirky mix, starting much of it too late to get very far that summer, and then proceeding to forget that we should be thinking about the fall as well.
Of course, we disagreed on things. Should we devote so much space to four mountain-strawberry plants just because I became enamored of them at a farmers market stand? We wouldn’t get berries until the second year, and even then, not many. But think of it. Our own strawberries!
Things went better the next summer. We started earlier, planting very productive spinach and lettuce thanks to seeds from Rebekah, who on a visit put in a day of sweat equity herself. We got advice from her and fellow Temple Gardeners, most of them wiser than us by far, and learned to prune young tomato plants so they would set more fruit, to water them gently at the base to prevent mold, and to weed, weed, weed and weed some more.
We learned that a little theft problem could be thwarted by picking the tomatoes just before they ripen and by growing Green Zebras and yellow cherries, varieties that hungry neighbors seemed to pass over. And I started sprinkling coffee grounds around the base of those tomatoes, to thwart non-human invaders.
Then Jane became less available for the garden, having met the man who would become her husband and having begun the process of moving away. I struggled at times to juggle the demands of weeding and watering and planting with yet another commitment: a cookbook project. Still, we grew Thai chili peppers that I chopped into fish sauce for a condiment, sparse amounts of other peppers and carrots, herbs (of course) and, at one point at least, almost more Sungold cherry tomatoes than we could handle.
I’m still learning. And in my third year I’ve settled into something of a rhythm. I’m nowhere near growing all my own food, like my sister. But I’m getting a few meals out of the plot here and there. I’m not growing corn or lima beans, but as soon as I see both at the farmers market, I use my basil, tomatoes and squash, if the latter is big enough yet, to make succotash. It’s a dish that speaks to me of summer like few others.
But now we gardeners have been dealt a blow worse than any stinkbug or sticky-fingered thief. We were notified by the Masonic Temple, which owns the land, that it will close the 21-year-old garden permanently in November, to use it for parking and to stage construction equipment. Those of you who recognized the previously quoted Joni Mitchell lyrics know the classic lines that come next. You can’t make this stuff up: Paradise is about to be paved.
The garden’s officers have tried to change the Masons’ minds, proposing that they use the adjacent green lawn instead, or that they close just part of the garden, or that, if they need to close all of it, they make the closure temporary. We held an open house, started Facebook and Twitter campaigns and asked anyone interested to write a note to the temple leadership. It has come to naught.
So this apparently is the last year I’ll have those Sungolds to roast and stir into risotto. I’ll have to uproot my three-year-old oregano, which is flowering gloriously, and the strawberries, and the basil I like to make into a paste for the freezer, and the fall spinach from my sister’s saved-by-hand seeds, and the lemon balm and tarragon and golden beets. And more. We’ll save what we can, to transplant elsewhere.
In the meantime, we are trying to find another piece of land, and several possibilities have emerged. But there is a chance that if we secure one, it won’t be nearly as conveniently located, as least not to me.
If we don’t find something suitable, I have a strategy. I’ll try to persuade my building’s board to allow residents to grow vegetables in container gardens on our roof deck, whose uses so far are limited to lounging about and hosting gatherings, things I’ve used it for many times myself.
Now that I know what I’ve got, even before it’s gone, I’m seeing the roof deck differently. This time around, I don’t plan on taking it for granted.
Yonan is the author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011).