DescriptionUntil late winter of 2007, my only productive interactions with plants had been with the most common houseplants. Neither our family's efforts during my childhood to grow tomatoes nor my obstinate individual ones to grow watermelons in conditions I later realized were completely ill-suited to the plant had been successful. But in 2007, after having spent about five years on a waiting list to use a plot in a community garden on National Park Service land adjacent to forest, I finally got a plot. Accepting the plot just before planting time as a complete novice gardener didn't seem logical, given the other things I was trying to focus on that spring/summer. But happily, I did not allow logic to intercede and cause me to miss this tremendous experience.
Having continued to garden in that plot up to today, I still look back with great fondness and pride at what I achieved in that first year thanks to an extremely steep learning curve, huge commitment that including a lot of reading and work, and tips from fellow community gardeners. I recognize that each year's weather affects the prospects for a garden -- sometimes beyond even the best gardener's control. Weather aside, I believe that my first year's garden was better organized than in subsequent years, and maybe more productive too. I know it was the year that I most enjoyed gardening in that plot and the season I spent the most time there. Indeed, as the days shortened that autumn, I found myself rushing to my plot to finish just a few things before darkness fell. On one occasion, against my better judgment, I even used my car headlights to finish a task.
My community garden is modeled on the Victory Garden concept, so gardeners are required to grow mostly food crops. I did indulge in the purchase of a lovely basket of pollinator plants, and those - confined to a small raised bed - gave me great pleasure the entire season. What still remains in that perennial bed planted in 2007 is Monarda didyma 'Jacob Cline,' or “Bee Balm,” which reliably draws ruby-throated hummingbirds every summer to the delight of fellow gardeners, passers-by, and this gardener.
I would be remiss if I did not emphasize how much one can learn in a community garden from more experienced gardeners, who are always ready to share knowledge, techniques, and sometimes even plants. Several have been in my community garden for decades, and one senior gentleman has gardened and been a professional agricultural consultant in regions throughout the world.
There is another benefit of gardening in this National Park Service location: the United States Park Police keeps some of its horses stabled nearby. Not only is it a joy to rise from weeding to see horses frolicking in a nearby paddock, but the horse manure they produce can be quite an asset for a gardener too, once seasoned.
The star of my garden that first year was my cucumber plants! I was so excited to watch them change daily as the vines clambered up onto tomato cages and nearby plants. To this novice gardener, they almost assumed the characteristics of animate beings. The first just-picked cucumber I ate in that garden from my own seed-grown plant was the most scrumptious one I have ever tasted.
I also quickly self-certified my tiny 10' x 20' plot as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation program (organic garden methods; food, water, shelter, and a place for birds to raise young) as a sign proclaims to those who garden or pass there. Perhaps the most thrilling sighting in my plot (even more than the regular spring visits of Baltimore orioles, Scarlet tanagers, and an occasional Rose-breasted grosbeak in and around nearby plots) was the appearance of a palm-sized toad - either American or Fowler's - near the area of my plot planted in then-lush perennials. Alas, I had no camera with me on that occasion. But what a delight it was to see that toad lolling in the moisture of my garden, giving me satisfaction that I may have achieved my objective of gardening in a chemical-free style that was safe for wildlife, and for human consumption.