It’s time to escape. There’s no need to shower. I’ll be drenched soon enough, especially in the July humidity. I slip into the dawn with stained, faded blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Freebie Shoprite gloves, caked in dry mud, flap in my back-pocket as I try to discover the location of some happy wren. Dirt from the previous day still stains my fingertips. That’s something that eternally abides - the dirt.
By the time I encroach on the fields at Barclay Farms, the dimmer switch of the sun slowly reveals the reds and the yellows and the oranges of the sunflowers that grow with an abundance in this garden oasis of Cherry Hill. The walk from my house takes just five minutes, an amenity not mentioned on Trulia.com when we bought our house in 2011.
No human is there, not even the early morning joggers or the dog walkers or the hard-core gardeners. The grass is still damp. The yellow finches dart and dive between the ten-foot high sunflowers like Spitfires from 1940. The fields are alive with birds. Gentleman rows of rainbow zinnias have blossomed overnight, alerting the birds to the feast. I admire that someone has the time and the inclination to provide such a stellar service to the birds and to me. Weeds like cathedral spires now surround the leaf mulch pile that had been my toy sandbox in the spring. It’s why I like the garden. I can make a mess, and it’s my mess.
It’s my first year with Cherry Hill’s Plant-a-Patch program. It’s a community garden in the center of the sprawling township. Most days, as I’m there most days, I feel like the Barclay Farmstead is my actual estate, and I’m some gentleman farmer. But this estate only costs me $30 a year to garden my 500 square foot lot. I’m sure real farmers would call this “cute,” but for me, with sixteen years of gardening like a dilettante around the home, the Plant-A-Patch was my entrée into the Major Leagues. I had enough of demonic squirrels nibbling on tomatoes they actually detested. Between the limited space and the backyard vandals, I needed a larger pitch, dedicated to the sport of gardening.
My wife Mary Jane calls herself a “a garden widow,” but she has been so supportive. She’s also a trained dietitian who appreciates the daily, organic produce. “There are much more expensive hobbies,” she conceded. “At least we don’t have a yacht. And you don’t gamble or drink. I really shouldn’t complain about a few bags of manure in the car.”
It’s amazing to see the transformation of a plowed field. In March, I had been so anxious to break the earth. I was one of the first, staking out my claim, laying down lime to reduce the acidity of the soil. I staked simple fencing.
Now, as I walk to my plot, R2, I take note of other gardens. Sunflowers line the two-foot common walk between the plots. I’m careful not to bang them because I know how angry I get when I’m feasting. But I’m tame compared to an angry bee. After a hour of weeding and watering, I see that Joyce my garden neighbor has arrived. She enjoys books on tape. Another garden neighbor plays NPR plays on radio. An older gentleman, one of those “Master Gardeners,” plays with his grandchildren on his four incredibly productive and ordered plots. He adds a dash of the decorator, too. I take more notes. Another neighbor has five plots in a row. The earth is tilled. There’s a high fence. I saw him once or twice. There are no weeds, really, but the earth is brown and ready but bare, and I wonder why he even bothers.
I pick over twenty Roma tomatoes, a few Beefsteak, and some Rutgers variety. I cut back the weed-like tomalitoes, a gift from Joyce that seems more like a curse because I did not plan on tomalitoes reaching every orifice of the garden. Someday I will make salsa verde. I cut free an eggplant for my step-dad who loves to eat his South Philly Italian heritage. I pick through the yellow wax beans. It will be one our plates tonight for dinner. My wife also teaches culinary arts so we often cook together. It’s where are two passions fuze: my herbs and produce, and her cooking skills.
Walking back before the real heat of day settles over Barclay, I speculate on three lessons of the day: Never underestimate the power of weeds. Never underestimate the growth of a plant. And never, ever tell the wife you’ll be right back.
As soon as I’m home, I dump the tomatoes on the counter.
“What happened?” my wife asked
“Water happened, and sun. Lots of sun.”
Dad,” my daughter Nancy said. “You have dirt on your nose.”
“I’m a farmer,” I replied. “Okay, a gentleman farmer. And some day, perhaps, a Master Gardener.”