I garden in Hyde Park, Chicago’s shady South Side enclave. I believe that the impulse—need—to grow things and care for them, is an inherited trait; and I inherit powerfully on both sides. Both of my families grow flowers, vegetables, and fruits, back in Minnesota, my home state, and I grew up in a strongly agricultural milieu; so I brought quite a lot of gardening experience with me when I moved here.
Chicago soil is nothing like the soils back home. Those soils were “natural”: whether beneath the tall grass prairie of my father’s home in west-central Minnesota, or left after the clearing of the deciduous forests in the eastern portion of the state, where my mother’s family lived, they had predictable characteristics, and were uniform over wide areas. One knew what grew well in them, and what did not; one dealt with a somewhat standard growing season, normal precipitation, predictable weather events, common pests; one suffered along with ones neighbors, when disasters occurred. Minnesota is by no means the best place in the country to garden; many other regions have richer soil, better weather, longer growing seasons. But it is gardenable, if one knows the rules. Chicago soil, on the other hand, is anything but natural: with a base of marsh and sand dune, it has endured 150 years of soil, water, and air pollution of the most egregious kind, which has left us with soil conditions that are detrimental, even toxic, to many plants. It fosters the growth of organisms we do not want, and stunts, even kills, plants we would prefer to have. Industrial waste, construction refuse, automobile exhaust, acid rain-- you name it, we have it. Widely spread, and in intensely toxic pockets. The fact that anything at all grows, is testament to nature’s regenerative powers. I suspect one could accurately describe almost any garden soil in the world, as being one of two types: urban, and non-urban.
The major portion of my garden is a strip of land about four feet wide and ninety feet long, bordering an east-west alley, facing south. It has nearly full sun, all day, and easy water access. When I first tackled it, nine years ago, it was a dumping site for refuse from construction of a nearby building—full of concrete chunks, rebar, old bricks, broken glass, sand and gravel; with volunteer trees and weeds—Chinese elm, mulberry, ailanthus, nightshade, poke weed, the usual urban volunteers—growing wherever they could put down roots. Cars and trucks had driven and parked repeatedly on portions of it, packing it hard as rock. I cleared about twenty feet of this plot per year, grubbing out the trees and concrete, disposing of the refuse, loosening as well as I could what was left. I have collected and composted untold amounts of grass clippings and leaves from the neighborhood; horse manure from the nearby police stables; kitchen scraps; used coffee grounds from local coffee shops; shredded paper: anything at all with which I could build the soil. And the job is never done: I still collect all of these items, every season of every year, and am amazed at how rapidly they disappear. The poor, sandy soil at the base of the garden is very hungry, and so are the plants that grow there. A commonly practiced technique is—build raised beds, with a barrier on the bottom, and fill them with new, fresh soil, separate from that which is local. I haven’t done this; I have been committed, from the very beginning, to building the soil that is already present, amending it with local materials; I have never discarded any of the soil, nor replaced it with bags, or truckloads, of imported topsoil.
The garden is basically successful—and is so much better than the alternative. The flowers, from early spring to late fall, are beautiful, and attract pollinators for the fruits and the vegetables. The raspberries and sour cherries are disease-free and bear loads of fruit; we get plenty of tomatoes, beans, peas, potatoes, garlic, onions. Peppers and eggplant have a difficult time: in some locations more than others, they are chlorotic, cannot absorb sufficient nitrogen for good growth, and are stunted. Each urban garden I have planted, has had this problem—as though pockets of past abuse persist in the soil. None of our produce tastes or looks as good as I think it should, is as sweet or colorful or large, as the same stuff grown in rural America: somehow, the soil is not rich and clean and lively enough, the air not pure enough, the beneficial insects not numerous enough. Our neighbors and random passersby, though, are always impressed and complimentary. It is obvious that I work very hard, and have skill and experience; I am gratified by their interest, and grateful for their praise. But I could not sell my produce to high-end restaurants.
So—what if a person, or an agency, offered me a million dollars to upgrade-- to get a backhoe in there, dig out the old sandy soil full of toxins and mysterious objects, build segregated raised beds, bring in truckload after truckload of great soil—effectively, turn professional, adopting the best practices of the successful organic fruit and vegetable producers who sell to places like Whole Foods. It would not have to be on a larger scale than what I do now; but it would be so much easier! and the produce, theoretically, would be tastier, better-looking and more uniform, predictable, competitive. I do wonder about this—often. Are my loving idealism and hard work, largely wasted effort? Fueled by poverty and stubbornness? Is there anything intrinsically or particularly good about this garden, and the process behind it—or do I fool myself, only to be slapped in the face when I am reminded of the real thing.
The thing is-- and this is paramount-- I love my garden. It is the fruit of my best efforts, of my energy and imagination and passion. Often enough, I make mistakes, and the garden saves me-- soil wants to produce, in the worst way, and it finds its own solutions, when I am stuck. We are partners, this garden and I-- in some fundamental though inexpressible way, our relationship models salvation, regeneration, a path through the trouble and turmoil that each of us experiences. To rip it all out and plant new, isolated, unrelated soil, would undo what we learn from one another.
In the meantime—no such money or opportunity appears, so I will continue as I have been doing. Like the garden itself—it is so much better than the alternative.