“Quite a mama!” Vanessa roars as she and her husband John mosey down the street. They joke about the milk quart-sized papayas ripening by my driveway.
I smirk. I am seeding radishes beside the house. I turn around and call back, “A few months ago, 80 mph winds took down the other three trees. The seed of this babe came from a fruit I got from a stranger at a potluck.”
I rise, wipe dirt off my knees and venture toward the couple to say, “A farmer from Oregon was in town helping his family in Myakka. He gave me a papaya he grew and I planted the seeds.”
The surviving tree leans like a ‘J’ rocked back 45 degrees. A green plastic lawn footrest wedges its trunk above the ground. Twenty busty papayas hang from its stalk. Its dinner plate sized leaves sweep out like the arms of a limbo dancer.
I discover Vanessa and John Walker live in the corner house. Would I like to come by? They have extra banana plugs. Sure! We saunter to study the gnarly bulbs — all brown, no green. We are rookies and they look strange. Somebody gave them these barky masses and we’re not sure how they’ll fare.
I take ‘em. They’re free and I want to try bananas. Verdant leaves shoot from the soil after a few weeks of my watering. A miracle!
Months later, a young father strolls his 4 year old son down the street. They stop to stare at five foot banana trees lining my driveway, opposite the papaya. Lanky leaves sway in the breeze.
“You know the banana you ate with your cereal,” the dad instructs his son. “It came from a tree like this.”
The boy gapes in amazement.
The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard which a man takes and plants in his field.
My first Florida garden is made of pots and window- and earth- boxes on the 2’x 20’ patio of my second floor apartment in Bradenton, Florida. Mostly herbs, as rosemary, basil and oregano, enliven my dwelling, along with a spindly tomato plant offering a pearl sized tomato. At least I am not bound indoors; I can step out the sliding glass door to crisp air, gleaming light and wisps of rain. But over time I realize I am ungrounded and long to live on the earth.
After five years there, I move to Sarasota, Florida. I now know it was essential that I rent a place where I can garden. I find a garage apartment adjoining a house whose tenant, Jessica, has similar leanings. The yard we share sits in a suburban neighborhood of mowed lawns and pruned bushes. I delight in the few houses nestled in native plants instead of grass.
My landlord gives me the green light. Since the backyard is heavily shaded, my boyfriend, Andrew, Jessica and I dig three 13’ x 4’ beds outside my front door which opens to the side of the house, facing south. The lawn maintenance guy informs me it was illegal to grow vegetables in the front yard. Apparently, he has run into trouble. Nevertheless, out front, by Jessica’s window, we dig another similarly sized bed and plant low growing, crawly foods like zucchini, watermelon and acorn squash with no backlash. Jessica chips in paying for water; I leave sweet potatoes, radishes and broccoli on the hood of her car.
[Mustard] is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows it is soon taller than the herbs and becomes a tree in whose branches the birds of the air build their nests. Matthew 13:32
I start plants from seed. I sow six varieties at a time, eight seeds per type. On average four varieties germinate and two of each survive. Attrition is high, but sometimes more grow than my garden can foster. So I cart tomato and mustard starts to our church in Andrew’s truck bed for folks to take home or email friends a list of surplus seedlings and they pick up cantaloupe and arugula starts from my driveway.
Andrew chuckles at my attachment to each plant. At the local organic farm where he works, it is common to sow extra trays of collard and spinach seeds. What doesn’t make it to the field is composted.
My endeavors are more personal. Tending to each plant becomes a matter of life or death. I lift each lilting lettuce toward the light. I soak every cilantro ‘til it’s satiated. And can’t abandon one thriving celery or squash sprout. After all, who knows what it’ll bring? Twirling okra that incites a child’s imagination? Deep purple tomatoes which stir a gardener’s heart? Sharing seedlings is missionary work.
Alyssa, the oldest daughter in the house bordering my garden, studies agriculture at an alternative high school. I learn this news chatting with her dad as he mows the lawn by my garden. I offer and she accepts green leaf and zucchini seedlings to bring to school to grow. Ever since, I come home to plastic bags of kale, tomatoes and kohlrabi hanging from my door knob. I tell her father they’re delicious! He admits he’s glad I take ’em; his family doesn’t know what to do with them. My heart sinks. He adds, “Alyssa is thrilled that I eat them.”
Mustard grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 78 AD
Carol and Cecily buy a house a few blocks away. My duplex-mate Jessica introduces us. Carol and Cecily are setting up a permaculture yard. They are planting perennial fruits and vegetables upon which they can graze. They invite me over to take a look. I gawk at the twisting twigs and budding leaves bending over glasses on the window sill – sweet potato starts! I have not been able to get any to sprout. Carol gives them to me – they’re extras.
I notice Carol and Cecily’s sweet potatoes grow well in the shade. I plant a few beneath the sprawling tree canopy out front where nothing seems to grow. They soon envelop the area in green.
[Mustard will] inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some [will] find shelter in and others [will] find obnoxious and try to root out. Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A socio-rhetorical commentary, 2001
After two years, my landlord comes to the apartment to look at a clogged drain. He grumbles, “The property looks like a farm.” He doesn’t like the banana trees out front. I offer, reluctantly, to take them out. He declines. Months later, he calls to say a friend needs an apartment and gives me two and a half months to leave. I am in shock.
I click off the phone, crumble into Andrew’s arms and cry, “Now what am I going to do!” I am just starting to learn how to work with the land.
I sob, “He probably doesn’t like the tall shoots waving sprays of yellow flowers, soon to be mustard seeds.”
In my garden plants grow full circle. Emergent seedlings bud green amidst a bed of russet leaves. Vines and flowers soon fill the air with curves and forms of lavender and yellow. Then broccoli florets and rotund melons burst between green. Finally lettuce turns to seed and dwindling tomato branches hang brown, fall and unite with soil. Plants are not pruned for show.
Broken hearted, I dismantle my gardens. I pull out plants before the fullness of their time and shovel off two inches of topsoil that’s built up, leveling the beds with the surrounding lawn. Then scatter Bermuda grass seeds. I get a notion and wander to a house down the block whose lawn has recently been replaced with banana trees and native flowers and ferns gleaned from a nearby canal. I introduce myself to the owner and tell him of my plight. Then I offer gifts. His eyes pop as he helps himself to the rich dirt I’ve nourished to now enhance his sandy soil. He relishes the bags of leaves I’ve collected from neighbors’ curbs to use for mulch.
Church folks snatch tomato and okra seedlings ready to be planted. Jessica’s boyfriend grabs a banana start. As Andrew and I remove the remaining six foot sentries, my neighbor on Jessica’s side of the house piddles around her yard. Since I’ve lived here, Sarah has been away caring for her ailing mom. Her mom has now passed, so she is back, tending to what’s been neglected. I ramble over, say ‘hi’ and tell her my landlord’s told me to leave. Her sunny smile sinks, she sighs and says she has been looking forward to our being gardening buddies! I moan. I would have loved her companionship!
She covets my banana trees so we lug five pillars to her yard. She will plant them on the property line.
Andrew takes those remaining to the compost pile and chops them to pieces. A month later, I spot green sprouts emerging. Amazing! Our new landlord just remarked that he welcomes fruit trees. We grab the babes to plant along with dug up pineapples on our new property.
Wendell Berry says big problems require small solutions, place by place, among people who are faithful to the bonds of relationship and the lands entrusted to them.
Sometimes folks ask why I invest in land that is not mine. I am grateful to live closely with sun, soil and rain and partake in creation. I tell of rhythms and rhymes they bestow and I carry. I agree my gardens cease to exist when I leave, but surrounding trees, grass and bushes that remain are enlivened. A limp orange tree searching for light in a shaded yard bears rounder, juicier fruit. Grass below a thick canopy begins to grow. Bushes nearly barren fully flower. Drabness turns lush. My allegiance to the earth is fulfilled, at least in the land I am leaving.
[Mustard] is extremely beneficial for the health. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 78 AD
When I move, I not only pack inside belongings, but dig up, pot and transport strawberry, sweet potato, lavender and sage plants. Containers of blueberries, chives, and Okinawa spinach are carried away. Large pots of lemon balm and rosemary are discharged from duty as buffers to street traffic.
My boyfriend and I move to Venice, Florida, to help with family matters. We rent a relative’s place which they plan to sell in a year. There is no question about impermanence. Yet we are eager to bring to life the languishing property, making it more desirable to prospective buyers. Besides a majestic, overgrown oak out back, there is little vegetation and what is here is limp, moldy or wrangled with dry, brown leaves and branches. To some people this is dismal. To me it is a blank canvas.
I set up garden plots.
Andrew helps by digging a circular bed. It sits on our corner lot viewable by passersby on the busy street. I seed buckwheat to build up the soil in preparation for a fall garden. A small rectangular summer patch is placed nearby full of cherry tomatoes, collards, watermelon and yard long beans which thrive in the heat.
As Andrew and I pat soil around newly placed mango and lemon trees, a neighbor meanders over. She announces she has tons of plants and invites us to stop by to take our pick! Being welcomed by a kindred spirit is heartwarming!
I continue on, replanting sweet potatoes under the bedroom windows where they flourish in sandy soil. Strawberries are settled in by the shed.
The ground by the front door out the living room window is barren. I decide to unpot my rosemary and lemon balm, giving them to the land, freeing them from two year’s confinement. As I tilt pots towards holes in the earth, I witness twisted white veins filling every millimeter of space, squeezing every ounce of life from the soil. I feel pity and shame as I pull apart roots, gently coaxing them to spread and grow.
I am an emancipator on a crusade, realizing pots are for temporary use, not permanent dwelling. I scurry from potted plant to potted plant to set them free, no longer saving them for my someday home. I set spider plants with the natives out back by the fence. Chives, sage and lavender start an herb garden for the next owner. Only the blueberries remain in earth boxes, so I can better manage their acidity. The plants are no longer mine.