Sowing the Seeds of Faith in an Urban Garden

A Californian puts down roots in Brooklyn by reaching out to her neighbors.

Posted in , Sep 8, 2011

Rebecca Maker now finds inspiration and faith in the fertile soil of Brooklyn

The heat was rising in waves from the concrete late one afternoon. I dodged tourists gaping at the Empire State Building and joined the throng of fellow commuters racing en masse to the subway. I dashed down the stairs to the platform and onto my train just before the doors ding-donged closed.

Thirty minutes later I was in my Brooklyn neighborhood, the crush of Manhattan a hazy memory in the distance. I headed for our raised beds in the community garden. How are my bell peppers? I wondered. Is the zucchini doing better? Should I pick the squash yet? I grabbed some fuzzy green beans and cherry tomatoes for a salad, admired another gardener’s sweet peas and tugged off a basil leaf, breathing in the heady scent.

I hardly knew what a community garden was when I first read the notice about this one shortly after we moved to the neighborhood several years ago. They were looking for people to help plant. I mentioned it to my husband, Billy. “I don’t have any time to do something like that,” I told him. Newly married, I had a demanding job in publishing. Besides, I didn’t know much about gardening. All we grew back home in suburban northern California were petunias and cucumbers. But on weekends we drove out to the family farm and helped Grandpa pick ripe plump plums from the orchard or caught tadpoles in the irrigation ditch or fed the cows. Still, it was more novelty than work.

“Go to the meeting,” Billy urged, “if only to meet some of our neighbors.” That was different too. We hardly knew anybody here. The pace of life moved so fast I barely got to see Billy, let alone meet those in our community.

The meeting was held at the nearby elementary school. A woman handed out slips of paper. “Give us your wish list,” she said. “Tell us what you would like to grow in the garden.”

Patience, peace, a better sense of community, I thought. “Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, basil, mint, snow peas, peppers, zucchini,” I wrote.

I didn’t even have the right equipment the first time I showed up. I tried to rake leaves with a shovel and poked at the ground with clippers. Billy and I scattered a handful of seeds on the four-by-six plot we were assigned, dubious anything would come up, and surprised, months later, when something I took for a weed turned into lettuce and plants transformed into squash, zucchini and tomatoes. No urban farmer was ever prouder of her first harvest! Suddenly I was hooked on farming.

That winter I checked out gardening websites and pored through catalogs. “I could build a little greenhouse so we could extend the growing season,” Billy offered.

“That would be great,” I said. We’d be able to plant in April as soon as the snow melted (snow was something else I was getting used to). We’d build raised beds and I’d be more careful, too, about leaving room between the seeds so the sunlight and water could penetrate.

“This year I’m going to grow mizuna,” I told Billy. It’s a peppery Japanese green that I loved but it was way too expensive at the market.

The mizuna was two weeks old when I needed to thin it, as the catalog explained. That day I was feeling a little frustrated at work. I came home, changed clothes and knelt in the soil, still feeling out-of-sorts. Slowly as I worked on the greens I thought about how God can work on us, getting rid of the weeds in our soul, leaving room for the best parts of us to grow. I plucked out the stubby sprouts, letting go of anger and pride. Twenty minutes later I felt renewed. The garden was a place conducive to more growth than I had imagined.

Two years later I’ve come to know many of my fellow gardeners. We compare our work and trade seeds and secrets. We are young and old, black and white, married and single. The neighborhood is no longer full of strangers.

It never was, really.

Now at the end of another work day I was back in the garden. Soon the weather would cool and we’d put Billy’s makeshift greenhouse over the last of our greens to protect them from an early frost. We planned a feast at our house for Thanksgiving. Here in this urban landscape, far from the fields and orchards of the family farm, I would still be able to do what we could do there. I could walk outside and turn the corner and kneel in the soil of our raised beds, picking the fruits of our labor to feed to family and friends.

Our little four-by-six plot has given me more than I could have ever guessed, a fresh harvest of tomatoes and lettuce and mizuna, and the chance to grow.


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