During the summer of 2011, while Sudi was home for a visit, I cooked up vegetables straight from the garden for dinner and made a tomato salad with tomatoes picked that day. I have so many tomatoes in the summer that I make a tomato salad with dinner every night. It consists of sliced tomatoes, chopped basil, a touch of onion powder, olive oil drizzled over the top, and a spritz of red wine vinegar. Delicious. While eating the cooked garden veggies and the tomato salad, Sudi commented that he thought it would be cool to grow vegetables behind his apartment in Oakland. I took him at his word and gave him a pot, dirt, and a tomato cage for Christmas that year. When spring rolled around, I provided a tomato plant (with a companion basil plant) for the pot.
Pleased with his new project, Sudi put the tomato plant on his back porch at his apartment at 40th and Telegraph and it grew and grew and produced yummy tomatoes. When he moved to a new place at 38th and Market in August, the tomato plant had grown too large to fit in his car, so he pushed it the few blocks to the new apartment on his skateboard. The tomato then took up residence in a tiny concrete-and-gravel plot behind the new apartment. Sudi and his three roommates enjoyed the tomatoes right through to November. One of his roommates told me he had never eaten such tasty tomatoes. That young man was raised in Chicago and had never had a family garden, probably never ate a tomato straight off the vine.
This past winter, Sudi and I talked about plans for another tomato plant. He said that his roommates wanted to try to make a little urban garden on the concrete slab behind their apartment. One roommate in particular had begun learning about growing vegetables and was keen on giving it a shot. And Sudi grew up with a garden, of course. I told Sudi I would help him and his roommates create a garden space. I started some veggies for them from seed in February and when I bought my own garden starts at the college ag department sale in early May I also bought starts for the guys. I shopped around (for a good price, and scrounged from my local nursery) to assemble a dozen large plastic pots, bought some more tomato cages, and mentioned the impending project to our family friend Linda, who is a professional gardener. Linda loved the idea and offered to buy the soil and to provide help starting the garden.
This past Thursday afternoon, Linda and I met with Sudi and his roommates and we all worked together to set up the urban garden. We transplanted veggie starts into the large pots and we transplanted herbs and lettuce into a nifty planter that Linda provided. Although the “yard” is tiny, we managed to fit into it 6 varieties of tomato (Early Girl, Celebrity, Black Krim, Brandywine, Orange Slicer, and Sweet 100s cherry tomatoes), 2 zucchini, 2 lemon cucumber, 1 standard cucumber, 2 patty pan squash, 1 pie pumpkin, 5 bush green beans (2 purple and 3 green), half a dozen lettuce, 3 varieties of basil, Greek oregano, and spearmint.
Linda provided instructions for tending the new garden and answered their questions. The guys started brainstorming and were soon full of ideas about how to improve their garden area with a bench, chairs, BBQ grill, and other amenities. I expect that they will spend many hours communing with their vegetables over the course of the summer. One of the roommates is a furniture maker so he is brimming with plans for lawn furniture. Before I left, they had already moved gravel to cover up unsightly weeds and they were taking empty paint buckets out of the area and putting them into the trash.
They have transformed a miniscule and unsightly concrete-and-gravel spot surrounded by two-story low-rent apartments into a space conducive to reflection and serenity. If they tend their garden conscientiously, in a few weeks they will be eating delicious organic homegrown food. Our young people are resilient and creative beyond imagining. They are problem-solvers and innovators. I’m proud of the guys for their initiative and vision and so pleased that I was able to contribute so much to the project. As for my Sudi, who loves his urban lifestyle, well, to quote an old cliché, you can take the man out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the man. Hooray for gardening. Hooray for transformation.