I always knew that I had a green thumb as a kid when my Grandma Berger would unload her tools from the station wagon and enlist my help to tackle the dirt surrounding our home. I loved digging my hands through the soil and getting physical with the work of tilling, weeding, and carting piles of organic material from one side of the yard to the other. I’ve always admired the gardens of both my grandmothers and even nature’s gardens that spring up in the most unusual places like roadside tiger lilies, dandelions invading neighborhood lawns, cattails crowding the edge of the lake looking like hot dogs on sticks, and the graceful strands of Queen Anne’s Lace that I would pick to wave around like a magic wand. After a somewhat failed attempt to grow pumpkins and a wildflower garden with my little brother, Teddy, during the middle school years, I didn’t pursue the interest much further and gardening went dormant in my life.
As apartment dwellers, Derek and I started a few projects in pots the past couple of years along with the pride and joy of our bonsai ficus tree acquired in the summer of 2019 at a farmers market before dancing our hearts out at a Dave Matthews Band concert all night.
When the year of 2020 hit with the sudden shift to virtual teaching in mid-March, we didn’t leave the home much at first. Working remotely, Derek suggested that I take an online Michigan State University course in vegetable gardening and that we could start growing seeds in our apartment. As I progressed through the course, Derek did his research and found the Michiana Master Gardeners Association and the opportunity to join their community garden plot that was only ten minutes away. I had no idea at the time that we would have such a meaningful journey gardening together.
“You only get out what you put in. If you want more, give more.” – Jeanette Jenkins
Gardening became a nice distraction from the realities of life during a pandemic. We cheered when seeds sprouted, worried about our transplants, and visited the garden site once or twice a day to water, weed, and document our progress. Our fellow community gardeners visited our plot while we were working to give words of encouragement and advice like natural solutions to battle pests in an organic garden and warnings of the local groundhog population. It felt good to be a part of the mutual toil and witness the growth of the community garden firsthand.
We had more zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes than we could possibly eat ourselves, begging our friends to take them off our hands. We ate a lot of green beans and zucchini with our meals this summer. The sunflowers kept growing until their stalks were more like trees and their heads were larger than ours. The blossoms rotated their flowers to follow the sun throughout the day with bees attached to their nectar.
When we moved to Valparaiso in August for the start of my new job, the garden was left to its own devices. We visited it once when we drove back to close down the apartment and picked dozens of ripe tomatoes. The remaining plants were wilting and we did a little damage control while we were there but had to accept that the garden experience was coming to a close.
A month later, the Michiana Master Gardeners notified the group that it was time to clear our plots for the season. We made the trip over the weekend to clear up our plot for the group. I removed our fencing structures while Derek pulled the plants, chucking melons into the woods like footballs into the endzone. The sunflowers were massive and it took a concerted effort to use our body weight for leverage to uproot them from the earth and drag them to the growing pile of organic matter by the woods.
It was a bittersweet feeling to say goodbye to the garden. We had put so much of our time and energy into it over the past six months. Derek and I had precious quality time together while working remotely to invest in this project as co-gardeners. I also had a shared bond with my grandmothers, Lois and Mary Frances, that I could talk with them about. I had rediscovered my love of gardening with hands-on experience learning how to grow organic vegetables and flowers. These are memories that we will never forget from our rookie season and skills that we can use the rest of our lives. I am grateful to our friends and family who followed our journey and encouraged us to keep going.