by Sam Killmeyer
This past year I, like many people, grew my very first garden. It was small, planted in buckets (I rent), and didn’t produce much, but doing the sustained work of gardening changed me. Plus, it turned out to be an even better coping mechanism than baking bread or playing animal crossing.
I had no idea what I was doing, but once I got my hands dirty, something shifted. Gardening gave me a small window into the larger forces that sustain us – soil, sun, water, air – as well my connection with other humans growing the food that feeds us.
Getting closer to the earth through my garden also grounded me in a way that helped me better engage with the challenges of living during a global pandemic and a year of social unrest. Gardening gave me the respite and space to reflect that I needed to become a better activist.
As we start a new year and look back on the “unprecedented” year 2020, here is a little reflection of my gardening success and failures, and how they intersected with what was happening in our country.
I sowed seeds in tiny plastic trays on March 22, a week after my workplace went remote and things were starting to shut down across the country. Planting had less to do with any long-term gardening plan, fear of food scarcity, or knowledge about when seedlings should be started, and more to do with having a project to manage my overwhelming anxiety and lack of control.
My garden center had moved to curbside pickup, so I called and asked for their favorite tomato, pepper, herbs, and flower seeds. When I drove up, I remember having the first, awkward meeting of strangers during covid-times. Should the seed packets and soil be set on the ground? Is a handoff too close? Do masks really protect us? How vulnerable are we?
My favorite were the rainbow cherry tomato seeds – like bright fruity pebbles in my palm. I’d never planted seeds before, and placing them in the soil felt wildly optimistic. How could these possibly grow in my drafty little home? Who was I to think I could tend to them?
But within a week, they were pushing their green heads up through the soil. Look at what this small bit of earth can do.
I know now that I should have started my seeds about six to eight weeks before I planted them outside. I let mine languish until June 7th, a full 11 weeks after I stuck those little seeds in their tiny, tiny cups of soil.
George Floyd had been murdered the week before, May 25, and I desperately needed something green.
There was such momentum, and I could feel that this was something different, something bigger, but I was also exhausted by how deep-rooted the injustices of America are. I was beginning to see more clearly how our nation is founded on genocide, violence, and exploitation.
But, also, wildly optimistic hope and resistance.
As people marched in the streets, I planted my gangly seedlings into bright orange, 5-gallon buckets. My landlord doesn’t allow me to plant anything in the ground, but I am lucky enough to have a backyard, so I pushed the buckets into the sunny spot against the fence and hoped they would get enough light.
We kept marching. And I started tending.
Over the next few months, something truly magical happened – things grew.
It was a summer of solidarity. The names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and others shouted in streets across the country, affirming that black lives matter. Activists of all stripes came together, and environmental organizations reaffirmed that environmental justice must be rooted in racial justice.
The summer was especially hot and dry. I did the things gardeners do – I watered, I watched, I found critters, I tried to get rid of the critters. So many insatiable grasshoppers.
When the tomatoes started coming in with dark, splotchy bottoms, I learned about blossom rot. I made friends with my neighbor, a horticulturist, and asked her how to fix it. She told me to go back in time and put eggshells in my soil when I planted them.
I learned that many problems are set in motion before you can catch them, and when you realize what’s wrong, there’s nothing to “fix,” just ways to move forward that are better, more supportive of growth.
I thought about how 350 got its name – back when 350 parts per million CO2 was a more achievable goal. We’re at 409.8ppm now, and like my blossom rot, I want to travel back in time and fix it. I want to go back and put fossil fuels back in the ground. I want to go back and take guns out of so many people’s hands. I want to melt them down and put the metals back into the earth. And so much more. How do we move forward when so much is broken?
The bell peppers, jalapenos, and basil were thriving, as were the marigolds, salvia, flax, and bluebonnet. There weren’t as many bees as I’d hoped, but I celebrated the ones that visited.
Elijah’s name was heard not just in Aurora, but was shouted across the country. Defund the police became a common phrase. The pandemic continued. People continued to die. My cherry tomatoes grew bushy and nearly as tall as me.
I live in Fort Collins, and the Cameron Peak fire erupted on August 13th. On October 14, it became the largest wildfire in Colorado history. And on the 18th, became the first to burn more than 200,000 acres. Before 2002, there had never been a fire larger than 100,000 acres in Colorado.
I grew up in Cleveland, OH, and had never seen ash fall from the sky. It covered everything, including the ripe tomatoes. The effects of climate change turned the sky orange across the west for months.
I had a small harvest. I ate a lot of delicious, ugly, veggies. So much basil. Shared a bagful of peppers with my lovely neighbor.
Putting The Garden To Bed
The garden kept producing into the middle of October. I learned the phrase “put your garden to bed” and on October 16th, as the fire still burned, I pulled the plants from the soil and dumped out the buckets behind the white ash tree.
It was cathartic, this cycle. It was ritualistic. It reminded me that we have been here before and that in the spring, something new will sprout.
It’s winter, and I’m writing this on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. The only green things right now are the pines and my house plants.
This past year, I got my hands dirty and slowed down in a way that I haven’t done before in my entire life. But, like so much of this year, my garden was something I did alone. I learned a lot by muddling through, but next year I’d like a guide other than the internet and the garden store, a community, like 350 CO’s Regenerative Agriculture committee and their Facebook Hub. I was given a plot in the community garden for next year, a chance to plant in the earth instead of just in buckets and among others who know much more than me.
I think we all got a lot closer to what matters this year – and for me, that was my connection with our planet, with the people I love, and with the necessary work of fighting for a just world.
I’ve prepped my small patch of earth for winter. I ordered a seed catalog. And, like you, I’m reflecting on what went well, where I fell short, and what I hope to see in this next season.
I hope it includes more green.
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