Around the United States this holiday kicks off summer. Around here, it ends rainy season and begins two months of stainless blue skies and dry 75 F degree days. According to our local plant expert, in summer we have the same plant growing climate as Rome, Italy.
True, the last few years for at least part of the season those summers have heated up, and those stainless blue skies can be dimmed by wildfires from as far away as Siberia. This year the ground is dry enough that even the official city display will be virtual with no spectators allowed, and all personal fireworks are illegal. Many of us are hoping that everybody shows some sense and finds other ways to celebrate. Two neighbors have already come to me to report that they are leaving their doors unlocked tonight, so I can come wake them up if need be. They have a touching trust that I will be more alert than they will.
Those neighbors don’t know that every year on the Fourth, at bedtime I wash up and change clothes, and take promenades every few hours during the night inside the building, and to check out the windows and off the balcony. That calls to mind Thomas Merton’s description of firewatcher duty at his monastery (The Sign of Jonas, epilogue), roving upstairs and downstairs and all around the grounds to make sure the night was safe. “Now is the time to get up and go to the tower…. where the night is wonderful, where the roof is almost without substance under my feet, where all the mysterious junk in the belfry considers the proximate coming of the three new bells, where the forest opens out under the moon and the living things sing terribly that only the present is eternal….”
But this morning brought a welcome cool breeze, so most of the day was reworking the garden for the summer. That meant grubbing out the spent California poppies and snapdragons and calendula. It meant cultivating and weeding, trimming the mint, and planting 10 new additions from the garden nursery holiday sale: six crimson sweet melons, two tomatoes, and two marigolds. It’s also gathering leaves from carrot, turnip, mint, spring onion, celery, and sorrel plants; those make green juice, and the pulp goes right back on the garden as mulch. There were new potatoes to gather. And of course a 40-foot raised bed always needs water, most of it carried down four floors in buckets from dishes and hand laundry. I have no gardening knowledge of my own, no idea what plants to buy or how to raise them. I just made up a few rules: buy more topsoil than it seems you will ever need, every February; pour on green juice pulp and plain vegan dishwater; and devote 20 minutes a day or more all season long.
It’s a blessing that this patch is not off in some specialty community garden elsewhere. The real benefit is having it grace our own environment, steps away from the kitchen and right outside the windows. Besides, the real crop is conversation among people who live side by side. Stick a trowel in the ground, and neighbors come right over one by one on their way to the garbage dumpster or laundry room or smoking bench, or they call down from the balconies, with lots of cheerful commentary and questions. These neighbors were the real reason for putting in a garden at all. It serves as a conversation piece, and in these two pandemic summers the community has paid twice as much attention. It’s touching that they show such an interest, stepping outside every day to see what is new and to call my attention to this or that new blossom or sprout. If only more of them would feel free to try their hand at gardening. If they did, we could renovate the grounds of this whole complex and make it a real oasis.
But at least there’s this patch. On this garden day there was plenty of time to think back on gardens created in the past, in other cities, and how they transformed rapport among the neighbors. Today that inspired my resolve to garden again, on an even larger scale God willing, no matter where my future home might be.