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Urban Gardening
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Photo: Alicia Jo McMahan
My first experience in urban gardening took place during the bicentennial celebration of the founding of the United States of America. Newly married, we lived in a city mission on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. What a great place to live—we were in the heart of one of the birthplaces of the American Revolution. 

Since the mission chapel and store was located on a major street just blocks from center city, I decided to plant red, white, and blue tulips to warm up the handkerchief sized plot in front of the chapel. The muddy patch was no more than three feet by five feet, but a colorful mass of tulips would brighten the gritty streetscape. What other such plots that existed along the street were largely muddy patches with fringes of weeds.

With dreams of beauty floating in my mind, I began to dig and dig and dig, unearthing an incredible assortment of stones, broken bricks, and other urban debris. For such a small area, an awful lot of sweat and muscles were required to achieve a planting bed that could accept bulbs.

Like any construction site, my efforts attracted sidewalk “superintendents.” It seemed like almost all passers-by stopped to watch, some offering comments or asking questions. Pleased to have an opportunity to share my vision, I would stop the digging to chat.

A Statement of Faith

After a couple of days preparing the soil, I carefully nestled the bulbs into the depths of the prepared soil. As I smoothed fluffy soil over the bulbs, I explained to my audience that the simple brown tapered bulbs would rest over the winter months. When the temperatures warmed in spring, green shoots would emerge and leaves would unfurl. Finally, as various events would launch celebrations of our nation’s birth, beautiful red, white, and blue (well, as close to blue as could be achieved through selective breeding) flowers would bloom.

As memory faded about my efforts in the front patch, life returned to normal along the street in front of the mission chapel and store. To my dismay, I would look out a window to see stuff parked on my “garden,” a pile of boards, donated furniture, even a motorcycle. I would track down a volunteer at the mission store to make my plea for removal. After looking at me as if I were witless, the volunteer would assure me that it was there only temporarily—otherwise it would be stolen.

At last temperatures warmed and green sprouts emerged. Every evening before locking the front door, I would spend a few minutes anticipating the beauty to come. In morning light I would enjoy the progress of growth. I shared my anticipation as the flower heads swelled. One May morning very soon, beauty would spring forth. I was very excited.

And then, not long after dawn a couple of days later, my husband brought in the newspaper with a news flash for our block. My ready-to-boom tulips were gone. Stunned, I stared at him and stammered, “Maybe someone picked some of them as a gift for Mother’s Day. We’ll have a new batch of flowers next spring, even if it would be a year after the patriotic celebrations.” It was, after all, a neighborhood of the economically-challenged.

An Unexpected Discovery

I discovered my mistake as I rushed out to stare dumbfounded at my field of dreams. Nothing remained—not one green stalk. During the night someone had dug up every tulip—including the bulbs. Either one of the many passers-by had coveted the flowers to the point of taking the only thriving greenery within blocks; or, as a recent story in the Washington Post pointed out, every spring thieves rip off freshly planted shrubs and flowers as a low-overhead solution for landscape projects.

Whichever it was, my attempt at urban garden taught lessons in hope—for myself as well as who knows how many of the people with whom I shared my vision and my reaction following the abrupt end to the chapel garden. When plan A doesn’t work, switch to plan B. In this case, containers that could be taken in at night. Honor loss of visions or relationships by establishing another. Never give up. Never.

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Norma Sahlin. Copyright © 2014 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.


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