Down To Earth: Small Space, Big Challenge

“I can’t grow a garden. I live in town and don’t have the space.”

People are always telling me this, but I seldom respond. I would like to say, “Don’t make excuses. If you don’t like to garden, don’t, but if you love growing herbs and flowers, find a way.” I think of my friend Donnie.

Donnie loves to grow things and doesn’t let a lack of space stand in his way. Several years ago, he moved from a rural area into Memphis. He bought a neat little house on a minuscule lot in a quiet older neighborhood. The front lawn could be mowed in five minutes. Next to the house were ancient, ailing azaleas and a few neglected junipers, but nothing else grew there.

He believed there were better ways to spend his time than mowing a front yard. “Life’s too valuable,” he said.

After moving in and getting settled, Donnie’s first project was to rip everything out of the front yard. He chained his pickup truck to the azaleas and junipers and yanked them from the ground, horrifying at least one set of neighbors, elderly twin sisters.

“They marched across the street and stood on the sidewalk with their hands on their hips,” Donnie remembers.

“I suppose in place of the azaleas he’ll just drive his truck right up to the door,” one remarked as if he weren’t within earshot.

“He’ll trash the place in a month,” the other said. They marched back to their front porch, from which they kept watch.

After disposing of the shrubbery, Donnie cut away the sod and hauled it off. He enclosed the entire 20-by-40-foot yard with an attractive rail fence. “I suppose he’ll have pigs and chickens in there next,” he heard one of the sisters say.

He tilled the yard several times, hauled in compost, tilled everything again, then built raised beds, made tiny pathways, put up trellises, and began planting. He put in bulbs, seeds, and small plants, then carefully spread pine needles around the tiny plants to protect the soil and keep weeds out.

Every day, Donnie worked awhile in his front yard, and every day the neighbors across the street watched him suspiciously from the porch. He always spoke to them but got back only glares and stares.

In the spring, bulbs blossomed, creating a picture-book palette of color. Peas climbed the trellises and bloomed, and lettuce overflowed the beds. Rosemary, thyme, oregano, chives, and sage flourished. Donnie began handing out bouquets of fresh herbs, flowers, and vegetables to his neighbors. Now, instead of watching from across the street, the sisters came over when they saw him working in his yard, bringing him pies and fresh-baked bread. They usually timed their visits to coincide with harvest time. Donnie soon knew everyone on the block, and they all vied for the bounty from his garden.

Now, as soon as one crop is through, Donnie removes the plants, puts them into the compost pile, and replants with something else. Peas give way to tomatoes; collards make room for corn. Three different kinds of basil, growing in the rich soil, produce enough for most of the block to use. He passes out pesto recipes and advice on growing all kinds of plants to anyone who asks.

Squash, beans, onions, garlic, lemon verbena, lemon balm, chamomile, tarragon, thyme and rosemary all grow in the small-scale garden. Most of the plants are clipped neatly and kept small. In one corner, giant sunflowers look down into the garden as hyacinth beans and morning glories cover the fence. Lavender hangs over the sidewalk, offering strollers a fragrant treat as they brush against it, and mints, glads, calendulas, tiny roses, and dozens of other fragrant, herbal, and edible plants grow there.

Donnie’s garden has become something of a landmark in the neighborhood. Other people have begun to garden in their yards, too, and the block has taken on a new look. Some people now have small herb beds; some grow tomatoes. They used to think they didn’t have space for a ­garden.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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