By Cindy Naas
When my children were very small I was determined to get them involved in growing vegetables and in being close to the earth even though we live in a city.
I grew up on a farm and learned to garden with my dad and wanted to pass that on to my sons.
However, when I began gardening with them I quickly discovered that many neighbors had never even grown a pot of tomatoes on a balcony, much less had an entire vegetable garden to tend and enjoy.
That made me think about not only how cut off most people are from the land but how isolated many people are in a city. Most of us don’t know more than our very closest neighbors. I decided that I would try to fix both problems when creating a bigger vegetable garden.
Build It And They’ll Come
I removed an entire side lawn and built a raised bed vegetable garden next to the sidewalk along one side of my house. After building two trellises at either end, hauling in soil and amendments and mixing the soil in the beds, I was ready to plant. By this time, everyone who passed by on the sidewalk knew that I was building a vegetable garden, and I spent as much time outside as possible working on it and talking to people.
On planting day, I brought my trays of seedlings out and carried my packets of seeds in my pocket. My boys got to dig and plant tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers at the trellis ends. Between the rows of seedlings we planted lettuces and radishes, carrots lined the entire garden, and on one end I planted a variety of more ‘ethnic’ vegetables- bok choy, daikon radish, bitter melon and the long eggplants common to the Middle East along with a bush of fava beans.
Since my neighborhood is home to large immigrant groups from China, Viet Nam and several Middle Eastern countries, I deliberately chose vegetables common to those cuisines, hoping to attract interest and possibly some new recipe sharing as well.
During the early growing season I was outside weeding as often as possible, hoping that people would stop by and talk. It worked really well- sometimes the weeding would have to wait for a couple of hours while I visited with people I’d never met, and a small but growing group of regulars would stop in to see how the plants were doing. I began to look forward to my afternoon cup of tea that an old Greek lady from down the street brought to me every day, even though our conversation was limited by lack of a common language.
As the veggies ripened, I would make a point of picking radishes, carrots and tomatoes and passing them out to anyone walking past. It didn’t take long before word got around that there were fresh veggies to be had, and occasionally I would go out in the morning to find some people already at work choosing the day’s produce. I was even more delighted when the neighbors who had begun getting to know me because of my garden also began socializing with each other.
There were two good friendships started between women from different backgrounds who became friendly while waiting for a bag of fresh tomatoes. Neighborhood children got to see how vegetables were grown, usually for the first time in their lives. While my garden didn’t exactly reduce my grocery bill – we got very little of what was grown – it did give me more pleasure than any garden I’ve had before or since.
Watching a community grow over a summer as my garden grew was the best harvest ever.