Maria tends an 8-foot-wide by 50-yard-long strip that is wedged between the main road and a 15-foot drop. The garden is always tidy and full of healthy-looking plants. I’ve been driving past it for 10 years now and finally decided I had to stop and chat with the owner.
Maria told me that the garden has been worked by her family for many generations, which means that this little strip of a garden has witnessed a great deal of history and undoubtedly experienced a whole lot of poaching from passing soldiers. Maria’s garden runs right alongside the road called Via Aurelia, which is the north-south road that the Romans built. Armies have been marching up and down this road since before Hannibal brought his elephants here, and everybody from Napoleon to the Holy Roman Emperors and the Normans to the Nazis have used this road as the main thoroughfare leading to southern Italy.
When people think of a vegetable garden, the image that first comes to mind is a nice, big, flat area with rows and rows of vegetable plants. But in truth, a whole lot of gardening is accomplished in other types of spaces. Little corners, tiny community garden plots, pots on terraces and narrow urban strips probably make up as much as half of the garden locations around the world. People garden where they can, not where they wish they could.
I’ve always felt pleasure in seeing the many ways in which gardeners have adapted non-optimal spaces for cultivation. I remember my shock at seeing Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden in Virginia — 50 yards wide and 1,000 yards long. It was almost too good! Any fool could grow a garden there.
On the other hand, one of the most impressive gardens I’ve ever seen was an abandoned lot behind a tire garage in Chicago, where a group of homeless people was growing a few zucchini and beans. Here in Liguria, Italy, I’ve even seen a few gardens that are 4 feet square and right on the edge of a cliff that drops 200 feet into the ocean. I do like all the vegetables that we get from our own garden, but I’m most proud of the improbability of the steep cliff site.
To have wrestled a wonderfully blooming garden from that hostile chunk of rock was an act of horticultural machismo, and I’m just dorky enough to appreciate that fact.
I’d love to see your gardens. Please join me on the Urban Farm forum, where you can post your garden photos!