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Meet the beets: When do you introduce a special someone to your garden?

Rhea Yablon Kennedy tends her garlic bed in her garden in Northwest Washington. (Courtesy of Rhea Yablon Kennedy)

My friend Elana doesn’t take just any man in her life to the garden.

“They have to reach a certain point,” she tells me. “I have to feel like I’m comfortable with them and I want to share this special place.”

A recent evening felt like the right time with a certain guy. Elana brought him over for dinner in her community garden plot in Northwest Washington. In a scene she describes as “magical,” fireflies winked in the June twilight and an owl crooned a forest serenade. Best of all: Her date loved being there and asked to come back.

Elana and I have a lot in common. We’re both unmarried women in our mid-30s with fulfilling jobs and community garden plots that we see as far more than a patch of dirt from which we pull edible plants.

“It’s my urban sanctuary,” she says. “It’s my special Eden in the city.”

Who wants to risk disturbing that?

To explain this conundrum to my non-horticulture-obsessed friends, I compare that first garden encounter to introducing someone to your parents.

Maybe meeting the beets you’re raising isn’t quite as make-or-break as an intro to the person who raised you. Still, it’s something I’ve mulled quite a bit during more than a decade of gardening and dating in D.C. With Washington ranked number one in garden plots per capita, and a large swath of those gardeners in search of love, it’s a question that occupies more of the District than ever.

When green-thumbed compatriots and I have introduced potential partners to our plots, the responses are all over the map: From enthusiasm (wow! Cool!); to surprise (I didn’t know you could do that in a city! Or What a … different use of your free time); curiosity (Where do you garden? What do you grow? How much does it cost?); and reticence (You’re not going to make me weed, are you?). Sometimes there’s judgment, slotting us into the hippie stereotype. There’s no telling what a guy will make of my 30-by-20-foot cacophony of peppery basil, multicolored flowers, leafy tomato plants, sweet raspberries, towering okra and lumbering zucchini, enclosed in a lopsided deer fence.

A negative response hurts more than a bee sting on a sunny harvest day. I’d prefer a partner who gets it, and remains enthusiastic after he’s stepped into the earthy, messy glory.

My self-consciousness about this hobby traces back to my childhood, when I was that kid who brought sandwiches on whole wheat bread in my lunchbox. That was not cool. (Okay — as a bookworm and less-than-fashionable dresser, I wasn’t cool in general.)

I was embarrassed and indignant when a teacher explained to my class that organic fruits and vegetables were often blemished. My mother was an early adopter of chemical-free produce, and the apples in our house looked the same as any others. Yet I don’t remember speaking up and correcting my teacher.

At home, I went back and forth between enjoying our healthy food and lobbying for the fluorescent breakfast cereals that flashed across my TV screen. I was pulled between upholding an alternative lifestyle and fitting into the mainstream.

It would take another few years before I embraced the sustainable food movement and started growing my own urban garden. And I’ve had a bittersweet history with romance and agriculture. One boyfriend expressed great interest in my gardening passion early on, listening intently while I chattered about urban agriculture workshops and food-related nonprofits where I serve on the board. But whenever I suggested we work on the plot together, he didn’t make the effort to align our schedules.

Once, I invited a guy I was falling in love with to help me plant one of my favorite crops, only to see our relationship end before the harvest. My Eden became a reminder of that withered hope.

So with most dates, I scrub the dirt from my fingernails before I head to the bar, and leave that important meeting for a later time.

Recently, I asked some fellow gardeners how they felt about mixing romance with produce.

Sarah and Amanda, both 27 and new gardeners, told me at a gardening workshop that they didn’t see the agricultural arts as cause for concern on the dating scene.

“It’s hot,” Amanda asserted of urban ag, and both agreed that eating local is trendy.

To them, places like the gardening co-op and farmers markets qualify as singles scenes.

I haven’t found many unhitched male gardeners my age in the wild, let alone dated any, but I did find one through a friend.  This gentleman, an attorney in his 30s, discovered that plying the soil lends him a certain je ne sais quoi. “It seems like it’s a good indicator for women that I don’t fit into a traditional masculine box,” he explained, “although I couldn’t say just how.”

I’ve heard of many couples starting gardens together, including long-term partners who have been working the same land for years.

So I started to wonder: Am I imagining a bias, making my garden the 600-square-foot gorilla in the room when it’s really a feather in my cap?

I was grateful (okay, and a little disappointed) that social science validates my concern. According to a recent study, “gardening and growing” ranked in the bottom 10 out of about 40 creative activities respondents found attractive.

In some ways, I’m still that kid in the murky space between eating organic apples and wanting the shiny cereal. Maybe I need to better align my dating life with my passions. Or maybe I should hold out for the magical moment when it all comes together, and I can put down a different kind of roots.


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