Every setting has its own gardening challenges. As someone who came to her city plot with a more rural perspective, the urban garden provided me with learning experiences that were previously unthinkable. June and July found me gently shaking my tomato plants and paint-brushing male squash pollen onto the female blossoms, because my walled-off city garden lacks the wind exposure and critical mass of bees necessary to set very much fruit. Arable space is at a premium, so if your one-hundred-year-old row house is built, as was the custom for “terraced” homes in the early 20th-century, on a raised bank of earth that provides perfect conditions for erosion, such is your plight.The real kick of humility stems from the sheer nature of city life. That is to say, most people don’t come to the city to live off of the land. We are likely to be renting houses or apartments, where the owner may or may not allow us to do our own gardening. We have non-garden-, non-farm-related jobs. In my case, that job takes me to faraway places for weeks. It’s a privilege that anyone who grows food for their livelihood cannot afford. We possess no delusions of self-sufficiency, nor even of a steady stream of supplementary food.Which brings me to the point: that knock-down, humbling experience of growing (or trying to grow) things in an urban setting frequently gives way to gratitude. Gratitude for what does grow, for the surprise successes and the feeling of putting it on the table. And, moreover, immense gratitude for what others tend and provide. I’ve been going to farmers’ markets for years in rural, rolling-green-hills Virginia, without giving them too much thought. Now that I live in a city, they seem nothing short of miraculous. I mean, farmers’ markets! How brilliant are those places? People grow beautiful food, bring it to your city, and sell it at affordable prices in pleasant open-air markets. Gardening in city circumstances has made me celebrate their harvests to a degree I never did before.This week, I’m cultivating gratefulness for some party-dress-ruffled collards my garden is putting out. It’s technically past the time for these collards to be harvested, but they had a strange year. I planted them in a spot with too much shade, so they grew too little early in the season. Then I had problems with pests. And only finally, when I had all but given up on them, they straightened their shoulders and turned into vibrant, unexpected grey-green beauties. I’ve been appreciating them in the mornings, tossed simply in oil and wilted, on a garlic-rubbed piece of toast.
The act of growing plants amazes me with the humility it inspires. Gardening in an urban setting, though, goes above and beyond any previous experience I’ve had. Beyond utter humility, to self-pitying, “the earth and the ground are all-knowing and I am useless” kind of days, where you hover between crying and feverishly concocting plans for the flagship chapter of the Society Against the Evils of Non-Native Slugs (Wanna join? Email me. Just kidding. Sort of).Consider: Modern cities, in general, were often conceived with the plan to keep flourishing green things at bay as best as possible. Washington, DC, where I live, was built on top of a swamp that was drained to the best of Jeffersonian-era abilities. Beautiful species of water flora were virtually eradicated, tidal marshes were filled in, and we logged the heck outta this little space. And now, years later, in some bizarre circle of history, home and community gardeners are trying to reclaim those green spaces, ushering in food and flower where they can.
Collards on toast
You will need:
A bunch of collard greens (or any bitter green, like kale or chard), sliced into 1-inch ribbons, tough stems removed if necessary
1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Your favorite crusty loaf of bread, sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and cut through the middle
Crushed red pepper (optional)
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced collards, tossing to lightly distribute oil. Add salt and pepper (and crushed red pepper, for a little kick) to taste. Allow them to wilt for 3-5 minutes, tossing occasionally. Meanwhile, start toasting the slices of bread. Remove the collards from heat when they are not quite as wilted as you would like, as they will continue to cook for a few minutes. When bread has finished toasting, rub it with the cut side of the garlic. Top toast with collards, and taste for salt and pepper. This simple dish is good as is, but is elevated to greatness when topped with a poached or over-easy egg.
Sarah is the voice behind The Yellow House, a journal focusing on the life lived around homemade, seasonally- and garden-driven food.