by Kate Baggott
It was a harvest fit for a single gnome or three tiny fairies: five finger-sized yellow zucchinis, a pumpkin the size of my fist, 10 sweet strawberries, three little peppers, elfin-sized carrots, and handfuls of peas, tomatoes, lettuce, chives, and basil. From that spring until autumn, my children and I tried to capture the magic of growing a vegetable garden on our balcony.
I longed for soil because the news that spring had been bad. There had been riots in Egypt and Haiti because people could not afford to buy their daily bread while, in the European Community, dairy farmers protested low prices by pouring milk down the drain. The whole earth was in upset and there was uncertainty – then, as now — that, I believed, would affect all our children.
Our particular lives had been comfortable, but then, my family and I were internationals. Home was elsewhere. Our language was foreign. We had adventures, but the more I saw of the world, the less I knew how to teach my children to build a better planet. I could teach them to plant the seeds. Or, I thought, I could if I knew how. There were gardens in my childhood. My grandmother doled out fresh green peas as if they were candy. My mother cherished her flowers. But I have spent my adult life in cities. I had never cared for a garden before.
And so, that spring, our balcony garden was an experiment to see what, if anything, we could grow. We got out old buckets from the cellar storage, clay flower pots and empty yogurt tubs. We bought seedlings and dirt from the garden center that we fertilized with used tea bags and shards of shells from our breakfast eggs. Every evening, we poured the used bath water into watering cans for our plants.
In spring we anticipated blossoms. We confused the pumpkin plants with the zucchini plants when their white and yellow trumpets unfurled. We counted vegetables as they sprouted and slowly ripened. We plucked early lettuce by the leaf and garnished every plate with new green shoots.
Every day, we checked in on our fist-sized pumpkin.
“Can we eat it now?” my son asked. “How about now?”
We watched the pepper plants and looked beneath the leaves.
“It’s just a baby pepper,” my daughter said.
The pepper did grow up and we did eat it. Our south-facing balcony that had always been too hot and too small to enjoy, became our little oasis where we connected with the earth and all her powers from the second story apartment. The harvest was brought in like treasure and our plants went to seed. We collected the seeds and rolled them in paper.
“Little baby basil,” my daughter said.
“I’m going to eat it next year,” my son said. “When I grow up a little more, then I’ll like it.”
My daughter threw the dried peas we’d saved back into their pot. My son tossed the carrot tops onto their container to compost. Frost came later to the shelter of our balcony than it did to the ground floor. Both accidental plantings took root again, giving us one last gift of the growing season, one last taste of our hopeful experiment before winter.
The next spring, we moved and we had access to a real garden. We planted strawberry plants and learned that their name has been issued with the height of reason. Without straw to cover the earth beneath the plants, the berries would just rot away into the dirt they had come from.
By the end of May, we had dirt in the grooves of our skin that wouldn’t simply wash away. We brought our experiments to the ground level. There was more room to play.
The news continued to roll in. It was a year of cyclones and floods in the world. There was no news from Port au Prince or from Cairo that season. We didn’t know what was happening in Haiti or Egypt or how events there would affect our children, but we knew the families there were much like our own. In the grand scheme of life, we did not even know where we would be ourselves when it was time to harvest our crops if they grew.
But we had decided, my little children and I, to plant again the very next spring. We would do it, just to see what would grow. It was the first lesson in hope that my children and I taught each other.