the garden of urban

4 tomato plants and two bell peppers. That’s what I planted last weekend when summer came in for a preview. I could hear my mother’s voice, though: “not until after Mother’s Day!” That was her rule, always, from our years in north Jersey. But it’s all right Ma, the zones have shifted.

Well maybe it’s not alright, but it’s true and my roof-top microclimate—these are all container veggies—tends to be hotter than the ground. That’s one of the benefits of urban gardening, or “vertical farming” to use the more accurate description. Mine is kind of a tinker’s farms, cobbled together with 5 gallon drywall buckets, irrigation strung beneath the deck, and dirt hauled up in bags bit by heavy bit.

When my husband and I had just moved into Washington we lived in a 6 unit building in a converted rowhouse; ours was a tiny studio on the top back with one balcony over the alley and another doing double duty as the fire escape landing. Our neighbors, Richard and Eloise and baby, rattled around in a rowhouse the size of ours. Eloise was a chef and Richard had planted the most astonishing container garden on their roof: tomatoes, peppers, blueberry bushes, dwarf fruit trees, and a pumpkin vine that crawled across the roofs of at least 4 houses unbeknownst to their owners below. When they went on their many eating and drinking excursions we were invited to harvest at leisure, climbing up the fire escape to this wild, edible roofscape. Richard always claimed he didn’t want any more land than that.

Till no more land than you can carry to the roof yourself: that’s the urban farmer’s motto. When we finally got some roof ourselves, we aspired to Richard and Eloise status…minus the giant pumpkin vine.

I grow tomatoes and basil, but haven’t the space for the olive trees or the cow, so my insalata caprese still depends on purchased products. They come at least form California if not farther.

For all my desire to eat locally, I’m not a purist. And, for all my diligence at using reusable bags, my under counter cabinet hides a dirty secret: stuffed to the gills with Peapod bags. Peapod over-packages to a degree that confounds me. Dig down into the bottom of one bag…ah ha! A clove of garlic, wallowing in its own cavern of white plastic! Another…here’s the soap in blissful solitude, its aroma wasted on the void! I love the convenience of Peapod, but the bags, oh the bags. My constant penance is to keep one of those little nylon bags that cleverly fold up into themselves. It’s a self-bagged bag, a bright green singularity that threatens to swallow the contents of my purse over its event horizon. (It’s such a weird topological object; I wish I had a klein water bottle)

Every time I get a Peapod order the huffing and puffing delivery guy (three floors up, no elevator) dumps a heap of crinkling plastic at my door I wonder where it will all go. But away it goes, as if sucked into another dimension, like folding up one of those nylon singularities. If only we could store our excess and our waste in another dimension, but this one is the only one we have. To be an urban gardener is to feel physically the weight and material that makes our food, and to be reminded of the intimate relationship with have with the earth who feeds us. It should be in the Urban Dwellers’ Bill of Rights: everyone is entitled to enough space to grow a tomato.

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