A Garden on the Corner

In everyone’s life there comes a time to keep a garden, and as a healthy middle-aged man with a nurturing spirit, this was mine. The only tools I had were determination and a small shovel.

It’s difficult to find a sunny spot for a garden in Belhaven, but I found one on the corner of Peachtree and Poplar. Year in and year out, the sun shines relentlessly for six to seven hours a day, and the corner lies to the south below a rise that shields it from blistering winter and buffeting summer winds. So I began planning a garden there on a patch of hard-baked soil on public property with a stump in the middle of it.

Surprisingly, having a stump on public property proved to be a plus; dealing with City Hall takes effort in any town, but in Jackson it takes courage tempered with arduous persistence and enduring patience. As it happened, during his brief interim administration in 2009, Mayor McLemore, in a visionary and generous spirit, issued an appeal for citizens to help make the city more attractive by planting gardens on waysides, an appeal to civic pride that perfectly fit my agenda. So I placed a call, and sure enough the city sent a crew; in hours the stump and most of the roots–I still find vestiges–were exhumed and ground into sawdust used to fill the hole left behind.

Then the shoveling began. It took weeks to get a good start because the soil was so hard-packed and big roots were still in place, but kept digging. I had to find soil where I could–don’t ask!–but slowly a garden began to take form, and almost a decade later is still growing on an L-shaped verge between a very busy intersection and a seldom-used parking lot.

On the eastern edge a sidewalk from the north once led to the corner, but its south end had long been covered when the parking lot was built many years ago. Still, since many people came to the corner down that walk, it was clear that I had to provide some way for pedestrians to walk through or around the garden, so I built two short walkways: one a southerly continuation of the old sidewalk that eventually became covered with silt and another shorter one constructed with flagstones and gravel, quite well-traveled, that leads west through the garden into the parking lot. I built four beds along the incline from crown of the hill with some old railroad ties that I found discarded beneath a bridge down the street and with concrete construction rubble that seems to be everywhere here, and a series of beds with brick edging along the southern border on either side of the entrance to the parking lot. When I told a visitor that I wanted to dig up the opposite corner and plant daylilies, he called me a benign blight, a left-handed compliment if I ever heard one.

Plants come solicited from friends and neighbors, some I find on my own; some are—more and more often—left on the purlieus of the garden for adoption, and occasionally I buy seed and sets at Hutto’s. The garden, like any other, has been a learning experience, an engine of maturation and discovery, finding out what will grow well and what won’t on my own more often than from others, learning the angles of sunlight, measuring the rain, all lessons in interacting with light and water and determining levels of care. In time, it has achieved balance and rhythm in step with my own long slow dance through the seasons.

After eight years the street corner has become a joy for me and others: In the spring, the parsley and mustard white and yellow, the iris raise alabaster and porphyry blossoms and the garlic, chives and onions begin breaking through the cool earth; early summer brings butterfly roses, echinacea, zinnias of red and gold, bee-grazed basils of every stripe, bright cosmos, small sweet tomatoes and a clump of papyrus that sways in afternoon rains; autum brings sunflowers that tower over marigolds drooped with butterflies, Clara Curtis spreads her pink bosom and the asters clustered around the sundial erupt in cornflower blue; kitchen greens bring color and provision through the dun and grey of winter before the narcissus tribe seeks the sun.

In time I will join those who have gone before me, but maybe after I go some will come to care for the corner, to hoe and sow, to give water when there is no rain, to keep at bay the grass, asphalt and sand.

Pocahontas Garlic

My friend Buddy owns a place in the tiny hamlet of Pocahontas, Mississippi, which is distinguished by archaeological sites of the Plaquemine Mississippian culture dating from 800 to 1300 CE as well as a more recent tee-pee that someone erected in a somewhat misguided–albeit somehow charming–homage to the community’s Powhatan namesake.

Buddy is a handyman, one of the hardest-working people I know, a man who does what he has to do–put up drywall, repair roofs, paint apartments–to keep his land safe, his home in shape and his family fed, the kind of guy who works all day, comes home, has a couple of beers most likely gets laid more often than not and gets up to do the same thing again the next day. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and he’s always bringing me stuff from his garden, tons of tomatoes, okra and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax at other times. Some years ago, in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic that I dried. The bulbs and cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic.

A friend who is better-versed in such matters than me said it’s actually a kind of leek, adding that I was lucky to get a pass-along of it from someone who lives in the country nearby. Buddy tells me that he has to thin his out twice a year, that it spreads all over the place and he swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. Buddy’s pushing 70 now, shows no signs of letting up, and I’ve got the prettiest patch of Pocahontas you’d ever hope to see coming up this year.