Extreme gardening

Something alien is growing in the community garden on my street. The garden occupies a narrow lot, fenced on all sides and bordered by multi-family homes. There’s a wooden fence in the front; the entrance is always open. In the nearly 30 plots, all of which are planted out this year, we earnest urban gardeners have planted our tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Bold, racy types have planted lavender or arugula or wandering Egyptian onions or albino hybrids. In July, the garden goes wild: the tendrils of my neighbor’s pea plants have reached across the gap and grappled with my Brandywines, and the raspberry bushes are threatening mutiny. We’ve got a compost pile and bees in the back. Lots of bees. The plants are green and lush right now, which is exciting, but a few weeks ago the verdant hues dimmed a little. The organizer of the garden sent out an email saying that one of us wanted to lock the entrance gate. Fruits were being plucked from vines. A locked gate is an understandable reaction to pilfering, a common problem in community gardens. You grow your plants, you carefully tend to them all summer, and days before you reap, some hooligan comes by and cleans off your pepper plant. I get it: What’s the point of gardening, if the products of your labors walk off when you’re not looking?

Ultimately, the gate idea was axed: The majority of us preferred to keep our community garden unlocked and open. And if someone comes along and swipes, well, that sucks. You could get mad, real mad, and plot your revenge. Or you can say, in your best Pollyanna voice, “I hope the people who take it need it more than I do!” or you can stomp at the ground and get over it, or you can shrug your shoulders and say that’s the price of gardening in the open.

The emails and responses grew quickly as people weighed in. People suggested signs: “Don’t Steal” or “We call the police.” A video surveillance system was proposed.

About this time, I realized I have no idea who these people are. I’ve probably seen them, greeted them, talked about bugs or taproot with them, but I can’t match emails with faces. I didn’t used to think of gardeners as being prone to extreme measures, but the situation escalated quickly in cyberspace. Last week, a gardener emailed all of us to complain that someone had stolen a few frying peppers and a basil plant from her plot. She went on to use her email to berate “them” (quotation marks are hers). In her colorful epistle, she questioned whether “they” even know what to do with the stolen food; she mocked “them” for stealing only a few peppers and not the whole plant; she said she thought “they” stole her food for spite, because “they” can. Finally, she said that if those thieves are the kind of people that live in the neighborhood, she doesn’t want to have anything to do with them. I find this fascinating because I, like most of the gardeners who garden there, live in the neighborhood—on the same street.

Her email became a battle cry. Someone thought they could secure broken-down video cameras to install around the garden—a ruse, to drive away vegetable thieves who are afraid of being recorded. Another gardener wrote back immediately to call for solar-powered electric fences. A few days later, a gardener/spy sent out a very excited email with a picture attached. He claimed he had caught photos of vegetable thieves in the act—and he was tapping the collective wisdom to find out if it was appropriate to spray the burglars with a hose. Later the same day, he sent out an email with the subject line “false alarm.” Turns out, he had taken pictures of a fellow gardener picking a few zukes from his own plant.

We gardeners are taking pictures of each other and thinking the worst. Where are we headed? An all-out produce rumble? I’ve been thinking about unexpected brinkmanship this summer because of a recent run-in with Dr. Seuss. (How’s that for a forced segue way?) We were vacationing with my in-laws in Florida, and one morning my mother-in-law surprised my son with new books. She said she had raided her kids’ bookshelves and found lots of lost Dr. Seuss books, and she was very excited to read them to Sam.

After reading The Butter Battle Book, she looked a little shaken. “Well,” she said. “That wasn’t what I thought it was.” I picked it up. The book tells the story of two peoples, the Yooks and the Zooks, who live on different sides of a wall. At the beginning, they disagree about some minor issues. The book ends with a Yook and a Zook facing off on the wall—and they both have nukes. That’s where you’re left, as a reader, seeing two Seussians about to blow each other to smithereens. It’s mutually assured destruction, the end of escalation, the final countdown, zero minutes to midnight. I thought I had known about escalation in Dr. Seuss—I’m familiar with “The Big Brag,” after all—but I was mistaken. I was delighted to find he was so political, so outspoken. I may not ever get past delight: I’m sure tomes have been written about the politics of Theodore Geisel, but that’s probably one area of literary arcana of which I will forever be ignorant.

As it turns out, one of the themes of my summer is “Escalation where you least expect it.” As for the garden—what’s going to happen when we leave the relatively cool climes of June and July and head into the really hot and humid waters of August and September? There's a storm brewing; people are drawing lines in the soil. I can't help but recall these wise words from It Came from Outer Space :

Did you know that more people are murdered at 92 degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easy-going, over 92 and it's too hot to move, but just 92, people get irritable.