When the old Salvation Army in my town burned down, you could smell charred fabric and smoldering tar for miles. Smoke drifted through the streets, a delicate gray fog that made everything and everyone caught in 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, that is how there came to be an abandoned lot. Over the years it acquired knee-high grass and scraggly dandelions.
I can’t clearly express what made me look at that lot every time I passed it, but I was drawn to the empty space. It made me feel excited and brave, somehow, like I was privy to some secret. When I stood on that cracked sidewalk and looked at the grassy expanse between crumbling brick walls, I felt with unexplainable certainty that that place would come to mean something to me.
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 knowledge of what that space could become gave me hope, but even I knew it would take more time and work than anything I’d ever done before.
Thankfully, I had help. I gathered volunteers; I convinced friends and family and Special Olympics athletes to help paint murals on the walls and mow and weed. A couple of months later, I finally saw that my dream could become a reality. Images of flowers and fruits and vegetables sprang up in my mind.
One day, I had an epiphany: I had read about this once. When I was younger, I 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 at a pocket park – a little space between two buildings with flower beds and picnic tables. That’s what I wanted to do: make a community garden.
The first year for the community garden was great. With the help of friends and a police officer, we installed raised beds for planting. We rolled the pre-cut, donated electrical poles into place to form six, 8x10 raised beds. Soon after, the Union County Community Garden Coalition donated a bonanza of flowers. With over a dozen volunteers, it took two days to fill all six beds. The community garden was instantly picturesque; 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 in the ground, and how to care for them. In early spring, I started half of the seeds indoors and decided to wait until April to direct-seed the rest.
It was a mess.
From mid-February to late March, I spent my mornings inside a freezing storage room-turned-sunroom. I puffed peat pellets with warm water; I sowed dozens of seed types, covered them with plastic, and sat them in front of sunny windows.
Then, 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 containers 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 were doing great. The kale was leafy and lively. The lemon balm smelled lovely. But all around them, the beds were in sore need of weeding. Frustratingly, I had not yet learned to identify the sprouts, so I couldn’t tell the desired plants from the weeds. I had to just leave them all. For a month I watered the maybe-weeds and passersby gave me strange looks.
Needless to say, I spent that month sulking.
Miraculously, things improved. I slowly learned to identify the beets from the clover, the lettuce from the dandelions. Things grew, and they grew strong. I spent hours and hours 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 now I smiled as they passed, 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 flower explosion of the previous year, 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. 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 try to make my dream come true because I wanted to create something pretty, or even something useful. In my daydream, the plants and murals were there to be admired by 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 are stimulated. Suddenly, you smell rosemary and geraniums. You hear fat bumblebees buzzing from flower to flower. You feel the breeze that gets stuck between those brick walls and 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 needed to create the optimal environment for growth.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.