Every year, in Project Phoenix, we like to feature a group of enterprising DIY’ers making their creative mark on the city. This time, we’re getting grounded with Growth Industries — profiling a florist, a tomato farmer, a nursery owner, a community plot, and a rogue gardener.
I once had a farm in Arizona.
Well, not really. But I did have a really big garden.
Well, kind of big.
Okay, I had five raised beds in my backyard, which is really not that big at all, but it is a farm compared to what some people have, say, in New York City, where, if you’re lucky, you can have a windowsill to grow some basil.
When we bought our little hovel in Coronado exactly 20 years ago, it had been abandoned; squatters were living in it and it boasted exactly 13 dead trees on the property, which the city promptly cited me for before I’d even made my first mortgage payment.
But when we went to look at the house, which we purchased at a Veteran’s Administration auction, I didn’t notice the grove of dead trees that littered the yard like a Chernobyl forest. I saw a quarter of an acre sprouting with an abundance of tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, and eggplant. I saw rows and rows of green leafy things flourishing under the glory of an Arizona sun, and I tasted jams and stews and dinners I had made that were plucked from vegetables and herbs right outside my back door.
It was a grand vision, but not as much as a foolish one.
We moved into the house in March, and on my first Saturday there, armed with a spade, some packages of seeds, a new canvas gardening apron, and a nice pair of goatskin gardening gloves (a hobby is only as good as its accessories), I planned out my garden.
When I decided what was going where, I heartily attacked the earth with the spade and almost cracked both radius and ulna bones when I discovered that this dirt that hasn’t seen a drop of moisture in three years needs a jackhammer and not a little shovel from Williams Sonoma. I promised to water that year, and returned my seeds and shovel back to the storage room.
The next March, after a year of attention and water, I went back out with the same seeds, gloved and spade. In an hour, I was able to plant a row of peas an inch under the soil, and when I proudly sprayed the hose over the soil that would grow my crops, the peas bubbled up and were swept away, only stopping when they hit the fence.
I took my gloves, apron, spade, and peas back into the house and the following March, I bought an electric saw, wood, and nails and I hillbillied myself some raised beds that looked like coffins for little children, but who cared?
Then I went back to the store and bought huge bags of topsoil and herniated a disk in my lower back when I tried to lift them into the car.
So, I went to Mexico and bought painkillers.
The next March, I paid a robust preteen neighbor to drag the bags of soil that had been sitting in my yard for a year over to the kiddie coffins and slash the bellies of the bags open. Rich, black soil poured forth and promised a better outcome than the previous March, even though I am fairly sure the neighbor kid spent the money I gave him on fake pot and baby aspirins.
I did not care.
By this time, I had lost the pea seeds, my dog had gnawed away at the gloves, and the canvas apron still sat crumpled next to the house where I ripped it off and threw it on the ground the year before. Things had taken up residence underneath it that I did not care to know about. I had last used the spade while attempting to kill a sewer roach but was positive the roach was now the owner of it and planned to come back and attack me with it in retaliation.
So, with bare hands, I lifted the tiny tomato plants out of their six-pack, (careful to wear my back brace), and planted them in the beds. Then I did the same thing for the zucchini plants, the green beans, and the tomatillos. And I watered them, and I fertilized them, and in May and June, I had zucchinis that were a foot and a half long that I showed off to neighbors and 20 more just like them still on the plant.
I had so many tomatoes I sun-dried them and openly laughed at people who were buying them at my Safeway. The Arizona sun loves tomatoes — both to grow them and to shrivel them up into crisps.
The next year, my garden grew bigger. I built more coffins, bought more soil, and finally planted peas. I planted an herb garden where dead trees once stood, and passed basil and vegetables over the fence to my neighbors.
So when we decided to move to Oregon, I showed the garden to the woman who bought my house and how to take care of it, how to operate the irrigation system I had just finally put in.
She shook her head in disinterest. “I could never do that,” she said. “I have a brown thumb.”
“I do, too,” I replied. “But the sun right in this spot is so great all you really have to do is plant a tomato and you’ll have more than you know what to do with in three months.”
“Why would I want that?” she asked me. “I can just buy what I need at Safeway.”
I never said goodbye to my garden; I just got in the car one October day and I left.
I knew nothing would grow back there for a long, long time, until the next owner or the one after that realized how the Arizona sun would spring up a plethora of whatever you asked it to with a bit of water and the tiniest bit of help. Instead, I looked forward to the garden that was waiting for me somewhere in Oregon, in a house I hadn’t yet bought.
When I did buy that house six months later, there was a perfect side yard that got the best sun, and as I walked around the area, I knew exactly where I was going to put the peas, the green beans, the zucchini, and tomatoes.
Our growing season starts later than Arizona, so one day in May, with a new canvas apron, a new pair of kidskin gloves, and a six-pack of tiny tomato starts, I headed out to the backyard, found the right spot, and aimed my spade at the rich, already black Oregon soil that dares things not to grow in it.
As the tip of the spade made contact with the earth, I felt a reverberating pain in my ulna and radius bones, and after I gasped in agony, I looked down to see that the tool had barely made it into the ground.
“How can this be?” I thought in shock. It does nothing here but rain. It simply cannot be that dry. It’s impossible. How can this dirt be so impenetrable? How can Oregon soil be as hard as Arizona soil?
I brushed the earth away, and once enough of it was gone, I gasped again when I saw it.
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And that’s when I understood that to have my Oregon garden, I’d need a jackhammer and not a little shovel from Target to remove the concrete that was the foundation for a garage that used to sit in the very spot where I wanted to grow tomatoes.
I went back inside, took off my apron, gloves, and gave the tomato plants to a neighbor who had real dirt in their yard, knowing that next year, I was going to be building some little coffins.