Urban Oases

Reader Contribution by Jane Gripper
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I have been feeling a little despondent on my apparent one-woman eco ship of self-sustainability and earth-friendly practices in this neighbourhood, where there seems to be a dearth of like-minded earth nurturers. Our local council has just voted to make recycling bins in our district ‘optional’ rather than mandatory, lawns are getting greener despite the apparent water shortage. No one, it appears, cares to grow their own food, or create habitats conducive to attracting birds and insects, and some members of my own family seem to have jumped ship into the swelling tidal wave that is modern day, consumer-obsessed living.

I decided that the only thing for it was to paddle around and find other “waving arms” out there, in my neighbourhood,doing their bit for sustainability. So, I set out on a quest to seek these people out. While not exactly commando crawling on the lush green lawns, I was peeking uncomfortably closely into other people’s yards searching for evidence. After all, I was on a mission!

What did I find? Heaps! Around the corner, a beautiful, free form, productive companionable organic veggie and flower garden had been created in the middle of a front lawn (gasp…what will the neighbors say). Towering sunflowers standing like dignified sentinels guarded the western sideof this superabundant substitute for an unproductive lawn. MaryEllen, the ebullient owner of this productive patch couldn’t resist the urge to grow more food for her family on the only sunnysection of their property. “I can’t take credit for the sunflowers,” bubbles MaryEllen. “My son Elijah plants those every year, and my daughter Lily has a creative plan for where the flowers and vegetables should be planted.” MaryEllen’s Italian heritage has insured that many tomato and basil plants are interspersed with broccoli, carrots, and lettuce. As we talk, we pick massive heirloom tomatoes, ready to freeze, slice,”sauce,” and bake.

Along our street, on both sides, between the road and the sidewalk, runs a useless strip of lawn, which is about four feet wide. Mynext stop was to one of these strips of lawn, strikinglydistinctive to all the other (characterless) strips, in that it is entirely made up of flowers and wild grasses. I have admired this particular, ever-changing wildflower garden, stopping every time I passed it, to watch the birds, butterflies and bees feast, and just to admire. I have even seen a mother duck and seven ducklings happily wander out of this impossibly small oasis. The children in the street smell it’s flowers, feel the interesting seed pods which appear during late summer, wait for the early crocuses to poke their way out of the snow in late winter and of course, daffodils and tulips in the Spring. On the sunny side of the house with the “wildflower strip oasis,” I spy a small yet fecund veggie plot. By chance, the owners Micki and Kevin happened to come out of the house, eyeing me a little warily. I introduced myself, and tell them I am writing a blog for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Micki smiles at me and says, “I love that magazine, I used to subscribe to it in the 70’s” Perhaps she will again!

When I explain that I am out on a mission to find fellow green thinkers in our neighborhood, and comment on their fantastic “nature strip” and vegetable garden, Micki just looks at me and shakes her head. A little confused, I give her a look that says “What?” Micki explains that she had established the garden 10 years ago as a small habitat for insects and birds, and to create something beautiful on the otherwise bland, dying, thirsty and weedy grass.

Every year since the garden was planted, Micki and Kevin have received a letter from the “Home Owners Association” complaining about their garden. “What!” I cried incredulously. While the letter angers her anew each year, it does not weaken her resolve to maintain this wonderful urban oasis year after year and to remodel the garden so that there is always something new and fascinating to contemplate each season.

I had noticed two years ago, that one particular house in our street had planted what looked like fruit trees all along one side of the yard. This house was my next target! I had put off talking to the owners until the Holy month of Ramadan was over. The wait was wellworth it, what I found in Samah’s yard was an interesting and diverse arrayoffood crops that would make any home cook rub their hands together with the amazing possibilities growing in that yard!

Samah grew up in Egypt, where she remembers most people growing their own food. Even in apartment buildings, balcony space was utilized to grow vegetables and herbs in pots, the bounty was swapped between neighbors.“My father passed when I was quite young,” reflects Samah, “but gardening is something inside me my dad taught me. He love(d) to garden too.”

A couple ofyoung, but thriving,figs trees are laden with fruit. Samah reaches out, picks a fig and breaks the small fruit open. We stand silent for a few moments admiring the pink seedy flesh. “Eat it.” Samah urges. The sweet, soft flesh was ambrosial! “I love these fruits, they remind me of Egypt. I am so happy to be growing them here!”

Among Samah’s eggplants, melons, various fruit trees, lettuce, arugula, broccoli, cabbage, many chillies and peppers,and a late afternoon sun shower, we animatedly discuss the therapeuticbenefits of veggie gardening, including being able to escape from the family in stressful times.While convivially pulling a few weeds, we laugh at the fact that the children will eat things straight from the garden that they would never eat if we served them up on a plate. Our eyes glaze with emotion, as we reveal our frustration at feeling weird in a neighborhoodwhere it is unusual to devote yard space to growing food. “This is my hope,” Reveals Samah as she sweeps her arm around her yard.

My mission to find like-minded people was a fruitful and surprising one. What I discovered were kindred spirits. People, who, like myself, have an instinctual, almost primal urge to plant. I have been humbled, and feel much less supercilious towards all those manicuredgardensdevoid of sustainable habitats or food, as I now realize that the compulsion to plant food and create sustainable habitats, expressed by MaryEllen, Micki and Samah, is something that is fundamental to who we ‘food’ gardeners are — a trait notinherentin everyone. 

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