Once upon a time I slept on the top bunk of a trailer in the rolling bluegrass of central Kentucky. A quarter mile away, at the edge of the farm, lolled a creek, shallow and brown and chock full of crawdads. Out back was the cinder block foundation of a house burned down years ago and never rebuilt. This is not that story, though the remaining blocks were moved, one by one, to form the beds of a vegetable garden built by my mother. Soon I walked through rows of tomatoes and cucumbers, broccoli and squash. When ripe, the tomatoes burned red as crawdads fresh from the pot.
2 There is a subdivision southeast of Tucson called Civano—the name of a late phase of the Hohokam civilization. Unlike most modern planned communities, at the heart of the subdivision sits a neighborhood center, and next to that a community garden lined with adobe walls and citrus trees. Each of the irrigated garden beds is raised from the ground by cinder blocks. Any neighbor who ponies up $50 a year is welcome to garden, and generally speaking the plots are all spoken for. Sunflowers are popular, and corn and artichokes. Herbs, of course, though they have been known to take over. And peppers: deep purple, sunset yellow, burnt red.
3 After my mother and I moved from Lexington to Tucson in the 1970s, she gave up vegetable gardening for flower gardening. Our home near a wide arroyo featured an atrium. She dreamt of tropical plants: bromeliads perhaps, or elephant ears and ferns. I dreamt of slow water and catching crawdads. In the atrium, misters were installed. A bull snake burrowed in. The zebra finches became nervous, chattering as they do. Outside, fruit fell in chains from the cholla, beautiful when backlit but vicious on the heel. Outside, I wavered in that desert heat, though soon I tracked lizards, cupped scorpions, once caught up to a coral snake no thicker than my thumb. I knew the sing-song on that one and let the scarlet beauty slip away.
4 The ants, too, can be tricky in community gardens. The ants and that sage, gone from sweet to suffocating in a half-season’s time. The artichokes went to bloom, though let’s be honest: there’s little in a garden more lovely than that spiky, cerulean flower. So (now a father) I gave up the Civano community garden bed and with my young daughters planted a garden beside the palo verde of our backyard. The first season: sunflowers and hobgoblin gourds. The goldfinches were happy, to be sure. But of vegetables, the bed was too small, too low. Still, those tall, vermillion sunflowers: cardinals among the tree’s bright leaves.
5 The thing about children’s beds is that, when it comes to converting to vegetable gardens, they’re awfully low. Yet when a daughter offers up her own outgrown bed that recalls those rural years of yore, you grab on. I grabbed on, at first considering cinder blocks to raise the garden bed walls, but that seemed heavy handed. So we settled instead on redwood planks. The first season we watered by hand, growing spinach and broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. It was an irregular business, the hand-watering, resulting in blossom-end rot. But my daughters and I learned. This season we grew eggplant and green peppers, cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes. They were red, the tomatoes, plucked from the headboard like boiled crawdads and eaten right from the vine. ✜
Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, publishing online since 1998. He is the author of two books of poetry, Bloom and Riverall, and a book of sustainable community case studies, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places, published in 2013. He has lived in the community of Civano with his wife and two daughters since 2000.