On a recent weekday afternoon, I crouched in a modified yoga squat, neck and chin thrust forward as I inspected the sparse leaves on the only remaining tomato plant in my plot at the Boca Raton Community Garden. I'd started with five plants at the beginning of the garden's inaugural planting season -- it opened in October 2011 -- and slowly pulled plants as they withered and wilted away, each dried branch an accusatory finger pointing at my inability to nurture something as ubiquitous as the tomato plant.
The sun bore down on my back and wood chips made indentations into the palm of my hand as I combed over the plant, preparing to rip it from the ground and send it to the same grave as its brothers. But before the guillotine could snap down, a pea-sized green nodule caught my eye. A tomato? Holy crap, a tomato! My first ever. I swallowed to keep from unleashing a torrent of happy expletives. I didn't want to alarm a nearby fellow gardener who, with her knee-length cotton skirt, tomato plants weighed down in a shiny sea of red fruit, and a genteel Southern accent, reminded me a bit of my grandmother.
Gardening, at its most basic, is a Zen endeavor. You work your hands into the soil. The birds sing over your shoulder. The wind rustles playfully through your hair. But it's also typically a solitary, hidden-away activity. Not so in a community garden, and this reality can stir the competitive beast within. It's petty and childish -- and not the most flattering thing -- to feel yourself getting jealous of someone else's flourishing bell peppers or her ability to coax sustained life from a broccoli plant, but so it goes. When you can see how well the neighboring gardener is doing with what seems like such minimal effort (emphasis here is on seems), it's not impossible to develop a case of tomato envy. "If we're a community garden, why the hell is everyone else doing so much better than me?!"
This season marks the first for the Boca Raton Community Garden, a wonderful new venture that usurps the whole "The only community I need is one that comes with a gate" stereotype so often associated with this city. The people who keep plots here -- a mix of ages, genders, and professions -- are lovely and supportive of one another and the community at large. The garden itself is great, a work in progress that has beautified and invigorated a section of the city that otherwise sat vacant.
I'm a longtime apartment dweller with a murderous cat. Growing my own food -- even herbs -- was next to impossible until this opportunity presented itself. My plot in the BRCG is my first earnest attempt at gardening, and like many in the garden, it's been trial and error. Betsy Pickup, a master gardener who graciously donates her time and expertise to the project, says this first year "is a science experiment." Indeed, and I've killed off 75 percent of my rats.
My failures are due partially to earnest inexperience but also to laziness. Plants just need water and sun to survive, right? Wrong, I learned. Dead wrong. In January, an in-garden workshop with Farmer Jay (Jason McCobb of Farmer Jay Pure Organics) and fellow gardeners set me straight on the importance of "amending the soil," a critical step for an organic garden like the BRCG. Eyes opened, I ripped everything from the ground that was beyond repair, bought healthy new plants from NuTurf in Pompano Beach, and merrily worked worm poop -- which, by the way, is pure magic -- into the soil.
Weeks later, my revamped plot is no longer a source of disappointment. The basil and other herbs are rampant, the carrots are edible, the red oak leaf lettuce has flourished, and the ugly tomato plant bore fruit. The milkweed I planted to attract pollinators has been such a success that monarch caterpillars have mowed the leaves down to nubs.
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Even though the marigolds won't stop dying and the red leaf lettuce has the taste and texture of birchbark and someone stole my only two tomatoes before I could harvest them to see if they deflated like balloons when sliced into with a knife, the coveting and the competitiveness have faded. All that remains is the Zen. OK: And a little bit of spite about those goddamned tomatoes. But Zen. Mostly the Zen.