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Written by Christian Cipriani -- BT Contributor   
February 2013

Get lazy with an urban garden and you’ll reap nothing but regret

MPix_Urbania_2-13y mom has a green thumb that I didn’t inherit. Or rather I should say, she possesses an unwavering dedication to gardening, while mine waxes and wanes.

Our family home in suburban Pittsburgh has long been a stop on the local garden tour. Each spring as the snow and ice trickled away, hundreds of tulips would raise their bulbous heads, presenting themselves to the local deer population like a great Technicolor buffet. And every morning we found dozens of them decapitated.

Mom quit on tulips after that.

But the rest of the yard, front and back, is still an ever-changing array of bold hues and textures that stops people -- and the odd deer -- in their tracks. Every summer day, right through until fall, she’s in the yard watering, or on her knees working the earth with her hands to briefly give life to this achingly beautiful display. To care deeply for something you know won’t last is the definition of passion.

My first roommate in Edgewater was an urbane medical student named Johnny. We bonded over taste beyond our means, and he also had a way with plants. Tall, leafy bamboo shaded the couch while mangrove shoots sprang roots in water-filled mason jars atop the windowsill. The balcony was a clutter of aloe, ferns, rescued street buds, and a dozen other beautiful, nameless species.

He once scalped a pineapple and embedded it in soil. Two years later, one lone little fruit emerged from the center of two-foot green spikes. We cut it up and soaked it in some nice vodka for two days, serving the flavored spirit and liquored chunks to a few lucky friends.

At one point Johnny and I had about 30 plants, which I took far too much credit for when I assembled photos of them into a little book for my mother’s birthday, thanking her for my green thumb. What I probably meant was: “Thanks for helping me appreciate plants.”

Johnny moved out and, over the next two years, I murdered everything he left. The corner of the balcony became a dusty cemetery of pots that did little more than take on rainwater and endure abuse from my cat.

This past summer I marched to Home Depot, committed to bringing the garden back to its former glory. I bought soil and seeds: tomatoes, Thai basil, oregano, cilantro, carrots, poppies, and more. Things really started off well. The passion was there and, each day, I watered and pruned and plucked, caring for the plants like defenseless children, proudly posting each new millimeter of growth on Instagram.

Two guys from work had their own gardens going -- one in a Normandy Isle yard, another on the roof of an apartment building in the Upper Eastside. We’d compare pictures and bring the fruits of our labor in for lunch.

These two were having wild success. The apartment rooftop was yielding fragrant basil and fluffy arugula. He found an old door and boxed in the sides, creating a shallow and wide growing area that worked like a charm. Tomatoes sprang out of five-gallon buckets; the arugula lived happily in an old desk drawer beneath a screen to keep the birds at bay. The garden over on Normandy Isle spat out cherry tomatoes, jalapeños, cayenne green peppers, salad greens, mint, thyme, rosemary, green onions, sunflower, and oregano like it was nothing.

After managing to shear two crops of basil, I grew lazy and impatient. Work got busy. I developed a gym habit and other nightly commitments. The DVR was filling up, calling to me. Life got in the way, and the fantasy of an urban vegetable garden began to quietly shrivel.

I either overwatered the tomatoes, or watered them too little. We’ll never know. Besides, like the carrots, they were planted too close to one another, and the battle for resources dragged them into what I imagine was a version of veggie cannibalism. Their entangled stems withered next to yellowing cilantro and, from the couch, I lost hope, drawing down the shades and refusing to visit the balcony. I blamed my growing neglect on the plants’ unwillingness to live.

But the truth is, I never actually read up on how to garden, choosing instead to go about it “my way.” I’m the kind of person who has to take apart an Ikea bookcase halfway through because I didn’t read the instructions, and whose partner doles out driving tips like, “Whichever way your gut tells you to turn, do the opposite.”

Right now the basil is hanging on for dear life, and the rest of the “garden” is a series of dirt-filled pots that the cat again has his eye on. But by the spring I’ll regroup, if only to prove that I can overcome an aversion to the three things that seem most essential to a successful garden: patience, discipline, and respect for the rules.

 

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