A bit of earth

"Don't be foolish and expect anything to come of it."

As longtime readers probably know, up until this year all of my urban gardening was, uh, a little against the rules. I lived in a second floor apartment with a little roof that wasn’t designed for people, or for plants. For a long time, our landlord was happy to just look the other way and pretend I wasn’t going against the city building code or whatever to grow cherry tomatoes over his head. His daughter—when she began to take a more active role in managing the building—not so much.

There were some definite downsides to the roof. It slanted, for one, so I was forever worried that things (or people) would roll off. High winds toppled some of my extra tall tomato plants once, and after that I would turn the planters on their sides when a storm was forecast. But the roof got glorious full, direct sunlight, so my sun-loving pepper and tomato plants thrived, and the only predators I really had to worry about were squirrels and birds, which were troublesome about the lettuces (which I never grew with any success), but for the most part left my precious tomatoes and peppers alone.

This year, with a shared backyard at my disposal, I’m in completely uncharted territory, and it’s exciting and a little frustrating. I tried growing peas for the first time, which are supposed to be a spring crop, and thrive in colder weather, but I think our late winter/early spring was a little too cold, and it took forever for them to germinate. Now I need to decide how long to give them before I kick them out of their pots and replace them with my tomato seedlings. Oh, and did I mention that something was eating them? That something may have been a cat, because I watched a stray tightrope walk in on the fence, drop down, chew on some of our new landlord’s perennial herbs, and then pad out to the little patch of lawn in the backyard and relieve himself. (This also explained the disturbed dirt we had noticed previously.) I scared him off just as he began to sniff around the peas. Then again, it could be something else entirely! Birds, mice, rats (shudder). I dusted the pea plants with cayenne pepper, which discourages pests, and a puff of powder blew into my eyes, burning and turning them red and watery.

But, I’m trying to not get too discouraged. I have eight beautiful tomato seedlings, and three teeny tiny hot pepper seedlings, and I’m trying to sprout the reluctant pepper seeds again (I have yet to successfully sprout a single pepper seed from one particular company, but have had success with all three varieties I’ve purchased from Seed Savers Exchange, even the older seeds). I’ve also got tiny parsley, catnip, sage, and rosemary seedlings. Everything is outside right now, although I’ll bring some back in later.

I’ve been taking my tomato plants out most days to get them acclimatized to the outdoors. It’s called “hardening them off” and it might be my favorite part of gardening—after harvesting and eating—although it’s also incredibly nerve-wracking to see your babies twist and turn in the wind for the first time, wondering whether they can take it!

In any case, today I’m exceedingly grateful for my “bit of earth,” however small.


The reading list

On biking alongside the great monarch migration, from Mexico to Canada and back again (Sara Dykman for Smithsonian Magazine). A 2017 story on breathing weird and running while high (Katie O'Reilly for Runner’s World). The pandemic hit, and this guy started walking 20,000 steps a day (Isaac Fitzgerald for The Guardian). A stupid cute, fascinating, and moving photo essay on bobcats in the Bay Area (Sarah Killingsworth for Bay Nature). The Alaska Long Trail could stretch some 500 miles from Seward to Fairbanks, linking some of the state’s most popular existing trails—and one day, it could extend even further (Bailey Berg for Sierra Magazine). Worth revisiting this brilliant and brief treatise on apples and rot (Helen Rosner for The New Yorker). Must read: How the “revitalization” of the Los Angeles River threatens the people who depend on it for sustenance and refuge (Miles Griffis for High Country News).

Finally, risk assessment: Writers, first in Slate, then The New Republic, then at The Atlantic, and now NPR and The New York Times, are questioning whether it’s still necessary to wear masks outside, by government or social mandate, especially now that an increasing proportion of the population is vaccinated. “I think it’s a bit too much to ask people to put the mask on when they go out for a walk or jogging or cycling,” Dr. Muge Cevik, a clinical lecturer of infectious disease and medical virology at the University of St. Andrews School of Medicine in Scotland, told The Times. “I think outdoor masks should not have been mandated at all. It’s not where the infection and transmission occurs.”

And, consider this excerpt from the Times article:

To understand just how low the risk of outdoor transmission is, researchers in Italy used mathematical models to calculate the amount of time it would take for a person to become infected outdoors in Milan. They imagined a grim scenario in which 10 percent of the population was infected with Covid-19. Their calculations showed that if a person avoided crowds, it would take, on average, 31.5 days of continuous outdoor exposure to inhale a dose of virus sufficient to transmit infection.