When the old Salvation Army burnt down, you could smell charred fabric and smoldering tar throughout the town. Smoke drifted down street after street, a delicate gray fog that made everything and everyone caught within it look ghostly. Volunteer firefighters toiled for hours to ensure that the whole block wouldn't burn to the ground, but they couldn't save the structure that started it all. And so, situated in between two buildings sat an abandoned lot, which over the years acquired knee-high grass and scraggly dandelions, upon which chunks of plaster would fall when gravity got to be too much.
I don't think I can clearly express what made me glance at that lot every time I passed it, but I used to stare into that almost-empty space constantly. It made me feel excited and brave, somehow, and like I was privy to some secret. When I stood on that cracked sidewalk and looked at the crumbling brick walls, I felt with unexplainable certainty that that place would come to mean something to me. I guess it stole a piece of my heart retroactively.
It was that certainty that drove me to ask Mr. McCleod, the owner of the lot, if I could use the space. I was elated when he said yes, though, in hindsight, I should have been daunted by what lay ahead. How was I not? The persistent knowing of what that space would become gave me hope, but even I knew that it would take more time and work than I’d ever put into something before.
Thankfully, I had people willing to help. I gathered volunteers; I convinced friends and family and Special Olympic athletes to help paint murals on the walls and mow and weed. It was a couple of months later that I finally saw the entirety of my ever-present reverie. Flowers and fruits and vegetables sprung up in my mind, a vast collection of mental images and sketches that somehow seemed familiar.
One day, I had an epiphany. I’ve read about this once, I remembered. When I was younger, I absolutely loved a certain science fiction series. In one of the books, after having traversed space and time, two friends went downtown to get some food. They ate that food at a pocket park, a little space in-between two buildings with beds of flowers, and picnic tables. That’s what I wanted; that’s what we’d do. We’d make a community garden. And maybe add a couple picnic tables along the way.
The first year at the community garden was great. With the help of friends and a police officer, we rolled donated electrical poles onto the lot. After we rolled the pre-cut poles into place, we had six, 8x10 raised beds to plant in. Soon after, the Union County Community Garden Coalition donated an ungodly amount of flowers. With over a dozen volunteers, it only took a couple days to fill all 6 beds. It was instantly picturesque, and even thinking about it now, I’m filled with pride.
The second year was more difficult. Instead of plants, the garden coalition donated seeds. Lots of seeds. I spent several days researching when to start each variety, when to plant them, and how to take care of them. I ended up starting half of them indoors, tiring of sowing so many seeds, and deciding to wait ‘till early April to direct-seed the rest.
It was a mess.
From mid-February to late March, I spent my mornings enveloped by a mammoth, floppy coat inside a freezing storage-turned-sunroom. I puffed peat pellets with warm water; I sowed dozens of different seed types, and I covered them with plastic and sat them in front of a sunny window. I waited. Some of the seeds- especially the rosemary- never germinated, and the ladybugs ate most of my kale sprouts. When I decided to transplant, all of my chamomiles died in a surprise frost.
When it came time to direct-seed, the wind sent my sorted seed container into a tailspin. I came close to crying when I realized that I no longer knew what was what. I ended up angrily throwing seeds onto the compost and I told myself that it didn’t matter; I didn’t care. Gardens were useless and I could buy my produce at the grocery store, thank you very much!
When things started to sprout, I got even more upset. The plants I’d transplanted (sans chamomile) were doing great. The kale was full-leafed and lively. The lemon balm smelled lovely. But all around them, it looked like someone had long forgotten to weed the beds. That was true, to an extent; at that stage, I couldn’t tell the desired plants and weeds apart, so I had to just leave them be. For a month or so I watered the maybe-weeds and passersby gave me strange looks.
Needless to say, I spent that month sulking.
Miraculously, things got better. I was slowly able to identify the beets from the clover, the lettuce from the dandelions. Things grew, and they grew strong and well. I spent hours upon hours half strewn across the extensive beds, getting soil all over my jeans as I pulled weeds. As you might imagine, I continued to get strange looks from passersby. The difference was that this time, I smiled as they walked by, dirt streaked across my forehead.
All of my mystery seeds grew into cabbages, heads of lettuce, bushes of cilantro, and all kinds of lively plants. It was a little patchy compared to the year before, but it was still beautiful. I painted on a piece of barn wood:
I decided (perhaps because it just seemed right, or maybe because I’m hopelessly uncreative) to name the garden the Pocket Park. And true to my dream, the city donated two, cherry-red picnic tables to place in the middle of the Park. It makes me smile every time I see schoolchildren picnicking there, or a little girl giggling as she hesitantly picks a flower. Looking back, I didn’t endeavor to make that dream come true because I wanted to make something pretty, or even something useful. In that daydream, the plants and murals were there to be admired by smiling people, happy to see a spot of color and life in a tired, concrete town.
When you walk by the Pocket Park in spring and summer, your senses become overwhelmed. Suddenly, you can smell rosemary and geraniums. You hear the buzzing of fat bumblebees lumbering from flower to flower. You can feel the breeze that seems to get stuck in between those two crumbling walls and that caresses pink petunias and verdant carrot-tops. It's all so different from what it used to be.
Last October, I visited Yosemite. One reason Giant Sequoias can live so long is because they've taken advantage of natural occurrences. They're fire-resistant; in fact, Sequoia seeds have to be set on fire to germinate. It sounds corny, but I like to think that the Pocket Park has that in common with those ethereal trees. Maybe destruction was necessary to create the optimal environment for something more. Regardless, I couldn't be more grateful.