I grew up surrounded by rocky soil, harsh winds, infrequent rains. Colorado has great sunshine and grows happy tomatoes, but my mom was raised in the rich black soils of Minnesota. She gave up on a real garden and settled for growing strawberries. I was drafted into the Wonderful World of Weeding. It wasn’t an enthusiastic horticultural beginning.

For Kym Dakin, pictured in Portugal, five years of membership in a community garden in Manhattan offered lessons in not only horticulture but also local activism. Photo courtesy of Kym Dakin

I moved to New York City. Sunny, open spaces were rare. I actively sought out nature wherever I could find it. By the time I’d spent a decade there, I had an entire network devised of mini-parks and waterfall plazas to tap into when I needed sanity.

Eventually, however, I felt the distinct urge to put seeds in dirt and grow my own … something. I signed up for a plot in the West 89th Street Community Garden, and waited for my 2-by-4-foot plot, shiny new garden tools in hand. I waited; strolling through the established plots, gathering inspiration, hatching ideas. And … I waited … season after season, year after year. It was six years before I got my plot. Someone had to die before I could garden in New York City.

Later, once I’d moved to Maine, I learned the importance of knowing what’s in the soil, but back in my Manhattan 2-by-4, dirt was the last thing on my mind. Soil test? Please. Trust me – NOBODY wants to know what’s in the dirt in NYC. I blithely grew tomatoes and beans … and never once thought to question the lead content in the soil. If I had, I’d have grown zinnias.

Those five years taught me more than just how to plant spinach. Open spaces don’t survive in urban settings without an organized defense against deep-pocketed developers, so everyone contributed time, money and activism. I got to know my many neighbors while gathering petition signatures to SAVE THE GARDEN!

In the plot next to me were two old Black guys from Georgia who grew gorgeous cucumbers. They’d watch me check on my sad excuse for a cuke and cackle at me. So I traded a few pride-of-plot tomatoes for their state-of-the-art cukes, along with a side of great stories from down South. In that diverse city, these exchanges were a treasured chance to engage off the surface with people whose life experiences were so very different from my own.

Trouble soon hatched in Eden. A gang of feral cats moved in on Paradise. This being New York, we mobilized – with a Cat Committee, dedicated to protecting the felines from the Perennial Committee, which didn’t like cats peeing on their peonies.

The debate, the meetings, the arguments lasted for weeks. A cat policy was eventually hammered out, and the whiskered vagrants were moved to a hardier location.

Whenever I visit NYC, I take the subway to the Upper West Side. Despite developers, cats and encroaching concrete, the West 89th Street Community Garden still thrives.

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