I had just about given up on the community garden.
The weeds had reseeded themselves in last year’s mulch. I’ve never seen so many weeds in my life. There were towering trees of poke, great elephant ears of burdock, Gordian knots of crabgrass. I couldn’t possibly pull the weeds before they got so gigantic. All I could do was walk back and forth to my own two garden beds, tramping them down a bit. Even that was a gamble, as weeds that high can attract snakes and rats. And then there was the poison ivy, which had wandered away from its home on the back fence and turned into a cover.
As far as I could tell, only one other gardener had stayed and tried to grow anything that year. Her beds were full of greens, tomatoes and flowers Mine were full of corn and vegetables. The other beds were shrouded in thick nets of bindweed, choking off everything. Someone had planted pumpkins before fleeing– they had grown at an enormous pace, as pumpkins do, tangled their vines with the bindweed, and then died. My pumpkins and zucchini were also dead. Squash borers had eaten them all alive. It’s possible to stop a squash borer before he devours the whole crop, but you have to be able to see to cut the maggot out of the vines, and there was no seeing anything clearly in the tangle of weeds.
There was nothing I could do. I don’t have my own mower. Jimmy mows my lawn. And the weeds were far, far beyond what an ordinary push mower could stop anyway. I’d begged for neighborhood help, but everyone had disappeared. The people who lived near the community garden and said hello as I walked by twice a day kept assuming the plot of land was mine, because I was the only one they ever saw come there. I explained I had no control over it at all, I just claimed two beds to grow plants in.
I was so frustrated with the mess, I’d decided to abandon the community garden entirely and only work on my backyard patch. But I still had all those glorious tomato plants. I’d planted three of them in my home patch and six in the community garden to have enough to share. They grew faster than the weeds, filling their cages. I had to at least come once a day and pick tomatoes.
I rounded the bend to Wellesley avenue in the noonday heat, to do just that.
I wondered if I was in the right place.
There was a great big heap of weeds piled in the middle of the garden. There was another great big heap by the front fence. And the ground was completely clear.
I tiptoed in as if I were going into church.
There was my Three Sisters bed, untouched. The other gardener’s bed of flowers and fragrant mint. My bed of tomatoes and greens, with the empty space where the zucchini had been. And the other gardener’s bed of vegetables. There were the four abandoned beds, stripped of the bindweed. Someone had ripped out every weed but tenderly left the struggling little shoots of a forgotten plant here and there. The destroyed pumpkins had been pulverized with a weed eater and raked into the pile of weeds– it made the whole vacant lot smell like Halloween.
Someone had left a rake, clippers, and a formidable-looking machete on the ground with a push mower.
“That’s how it supposed to look,” said a voice behind me.
I jumped around to find the older gentleman who always says “Hi, Gardener!” when I walk by. He likes to point to his own pot belly and joke that if I keep walking, I’ll be as slim as he is.
“My nephew done it,” said the man to my flabbergasted face. “He comin’ back to finish the job!”
I didn’t even have words to thank the nephew. I walked straight to the raised bed and collected my day’s tomatoes with no trouble. I even found a cucumber from a forgotten vine that had been completely overwhelmed by weeds.
When I came back in the cool of the evening, I met the nephew– taller and slimmer than his uncle, with locs down to his waist.
“Are you one of the people who did this?” I asked.
“I’m the only one that did it!” he said proudly. “Two days, about ten hours, it was hard. There were all kinds of squash over there, but a squash bug got them.”
“I lost mine too!”
“Oh, so you’re Mary. I talked to the head of the community garden and asked if I could mow it. You had that beautiful chard,” he said, pointing to my bed of wilting greens, “but the bugs ate it. Look, this person planted rosemary and just left it behind.”
“I don’t understand why anyone would do that. Why did he abandon the rosemary?”
“I’m gonna use one of these beds for myself,” said my benefactor, taking a drag on his cigar. As he talked about the different plants he wanted to grow, the smoke wafted around his head. I thought he looked like an archangel who had come to my rescue.
“Now that the grass is cut, I can put down gardener’s cloth so this doesn’t happen again,” I said happily. “I wanted to do that all along, but the weeds were already too high. But I don’t know where she put the bolts of cloth.”
“They’re over there, I moved them. I’m gonna mulch all of this. If we put the mulch on top of the cloth it’ll save them money, they won’t have to buy any.”
“Well, don’t mow any closer to that back fence! There’s terrible poison ivy. It’s at least 30 feet from where the food is planted, I was going to just spray it very carefully. Poison ivy is the only thing I ever spray.”
“That should be safe. I left some of the biggest weeds still standing over there as sort of a wall. The man next door likes to let his pit bulls out.”
“I know it. Say, let’s plant raspberry canes there! Then we’ll have a living fence. And we can grow a winter garden over here– might as well use some of the extra bags of soil nobody wants. We can plant peas and kale and put in some garlic to overwinter.”
We plotted until it got dark.
The next morning I came and started unrolling the black cloth over the newly mown ground.
What a community garden needs most is a community.
I have been alone so often, I often forget community.
Sometimes things work out.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.