My Flowers and I Take Root in the City

My white socks needed to be bleached. Streaks of dirt covered my legs, and the clay soil had turned my tennis shoes brown. This made me happy. I had just come in from the "field" or patch of sunflowers I planted in my neighborhood.

When I moved to New York City last fall, I didn't understand the concept of living without a field, much less a lawn. In the evenings, I returned to my fourth-story apartment and stared out my terrace doors. On the farm where I had been raised in north-central Iowa, I knew that my parents were outside pulling weeds or watering the phlox. My hands longed for the soil.

When I really started to feel like a Midwesterner - with my un-mod hairstyle and my application of "please," "thank you," and "pardon me" to every situation - I noticed New York's soil, which reminded me of home. Watching a superintendent plant a shrub one day, I saw that the soil was compacted, rocky, hard - regular clay. Its terra-cotta hue surprised me. With my nose in the air, I compared it with Iowa's black, loose loam and wondered if anyone else in the city noticed the earth, its color and texture.

Summer came. After eight months of landlessness. I did what I could: I bought a planter for my terrace and seed for my pots. Upon hearing that I had basil, tomato, spearmint, and kale plants growing on my apartment's end tables and six-inch-wide terrace, my mother sent me a packet of sunflower seeds. "They'll be fun for you," she wrote.

I planted 12 seeds, gave one to my neighbor, and eight to my superintendent for the flower beds out front. When the green stems pushed above the soil - they looked like oddly colored lollipops - I took one of the pots with me to breakfast at the neighborhood diner. It was no different from walking a dog, I reasoned.

With south-facing windows and plenty of good New York water, I quickly had 12 stems in three pots. Four nudged their way through the soil in the flower bed in front of the building, and four seeds preferred to stay buried. The others grew and grew and grew.

AS I didn't have enough soil for 12 sunflowers or a wide enough terrace for their leaf spans, I planted five of them in an old kitchen garbage can. Two went to my sister Jane in Maryland as a yard-warming gift (a crow ate one shortly after). Two in the garbage can drooped. And the five left in the tiny green pot threatened to be stunted permanently. When they didn't grow for a good week, I surveyed the neighborhood. The best spot, I concluded - after looking at Columbia University and the parking lot across the street - was the church one block away. It had a fence around its garden, so no one could steal my flowers - a problem in the city, I was told by neighborhood matriarchs. And Helen, the church's volunteer gardener, who herself resembles a willowy corn flower, said that if I thought they'd grow, I could plant them.

The next morning, I borrowed the church's spade and prepared the beds. Since the clay soil was parched and rocky, I had difficulty chopping up the ground. I thought back to the previous summer on the farm where I had planted canna bulbs; my spade had sliced right through the soil. After several minutes of lifting the church's soil up and over, back onto the plot, I started to have a workable, soft bed to my right, and a pile of stones to my left. In three-quarters of an hour, the spindly flowers were planted with a mound of soil around their stems to keep them snug. I watered them and then left the churchyard, closing its gate behind me.

On the way home, I noticed dirt packed under my now-ragged fingernails. There was dust on my arms, and my legs were splattered with mud. This is living, I declared, and refused to shower for fear of losing my hard-earned in-the-outdoors odor - something I hadn't inhaled for a while.

Tending to the sunflowers became an important tri-weekly task. Grow, grow! I coaxed them while watering their thickening, hairy stalks. Like a bona fide farmer, I watched the sky and was pleased when I heard a storm brewing.

When friends visited from out of town, I took them on a "shortcut" to the subway and showed off my crop. But none of them were as passionate about my plants as I was - besides Super, who was on the lookout for the street's petunia thief, and Jos, the church's caretaker. "You give lady flower," he said to me one morning at the church, "she smile," and he broke into one himself.

On days when I arrived late and Jos had already locked the wrought-iron fence for the day, I gripped the square-shaped bars and stood watching the sunflowers. Behind the fence, I urged them upward. And over the course of the summer, they stretched, reached, and tilted their leaves to the sun, as if in homage to the great star. But downward, too, the flowers crept and spread like nimble worms toward the earth's dark epicenter, beneath fist-sized stones. And after eight fieldless months, I had someplace to gravitate toward - like my sunflowers - and someplace to put my hands.

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