Gardening Is Like College

Minus the beer bongs

Like thousands of high school seniors across the country, I was accepted into an elite institution this month. I scored a spot in the local community garden.

So far, the community garden experience reminds me a lot of college.

A short list of the major similarities I’ve noticed:

There’s a killer waiting list

I’m sure that there are places where you can just sign up and get a garden plot. Those places are not near anywhere I’ve lived in Philly. The waiting list for the Schuylkill River Park garden is rumored to be years long. In New York, where I lived previously, a community garden plot was harder to find than a rent-controlled brownstone.

I was initially waitlisted for my garden plot. I diligently sent updates on my status every few weeks, each one crafted to suggest I’d be a valuable member of the community: “I have seven varieties of heirloom lettuce to try this year, and I’m excited to get them into the ground before the last frost date.” And so on. I read up on deer prevention and succession planting, just in case I ran into the garden plot coordinator at Weaver’s Way Co-op and accidentally-on-purpose chatted about my desire to get a plot. It’s possible that I got in just so I’d stop sending cheerful emails.

You must choose your spot wisely

I got in the night before the big spring cleanup, the day that plots were allocated. I rushed over as soon as I got the email. There were only a couple of plots left, according to the grid posted on the community message board. I walked the paths outlined by stakes and string, trying to figure out which would be the most strategic spot. Much like the way I entered my first dorm room, trying to figure out whether I wanted the top or bottom bunk, and whether it would be better to have the desk near the window or the door. I asked for plot #32. When I found out it would be mine, it felt like the same triumph I felt when my junior year rooming group got our first choice suite.

Everyone knows everyone already

My hallmates—er, neighbors—are great so far. I’ve hit it off with Diana, who shares a garden wall with me. She’s like the older cool girl on the hall, telling me the scoop on what I need to know to fit in. We discussed the giant trenches and mounds dug by the guys in the adjoining plot: They grow sorghum, she said. I could tell that this is the community garden equivalent of building your own robots. My plot is a pretty good one, she told me: not too many weeds. She pointed out which plots get flooded, which ones get pillaged by deer, who grows the best pumpkins. In college, you get judged on your clothes and your friends and your grades. In the garden, you get judged on your clothes and your deer fence and your vegetables.

Social politics abound
The social scene is intense, I’ve learned: Gardeners will get adjoining plots, hang out together, share produce, even combine forces to make a double or quadruple-sized plot. But if the relationship goes sour, the plot breaks up. Walls of deer fencing are erected. The next year, the gardeners choose plots distant from each other.

I saw a knot of gardeners hanging out one warm evening, catching up on the news from the winter. I expected someone to pull out a thermos of cocktails. It looked like that kind of crowd—at least, from my perspective as a social outsider on the other side of the garden. I wondered if the cool place to be is on the south side of the field. My plot is on the north. I was seized with what my college students call FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. Wherever the garden party is, I plan to find out—and wangle an invitation.

If you violate the unwritten rules, people will hate you
I mentioned my new plot at a neighborhood kiddie party. “Whatever you do, don’t plant corn on the edge of your plot,” my friend Jenny warned me. She recently graduated from the community garden to her own set of raised beds at home. “I did that one year, and my neighbors gave me SUCH a hard time. Like my corn MIGHT POSSIBLY throw a tiny bit of shade on their plants.”

I admitted that I had planned to put two rows of corn across the north side of my plot. “Don’t do it,” Tobey, another dad at the party, said flatly. He has a double plot in the garden. Tobey agreed with Jenny: better to put the corn in the middle of the plot, where it only shades your own plants, rather than putting it on the north side and annoying the neighbors. People get really particular when it comes to shade, he said.

It reminded me of the time that this guy I knew in college got up drunk in the middle of the night and peed in the drawer of his roommate’s desk, thinking it was the bathroom. Unwritten rule in college: Do not pee on your roommate’s stuff.

Now that I’m in, my big plan is to coast until the summer semester begins on May 15, the final frost date for our area. That’s when the tomatoes and other warm-weather crops can survive in the ground. It’s also when the real action begins in the garden. I’m going to be writing periodic updates on my adventures as a novice gardener. I plan to be thoroughly schooled by the end of the summer.

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