The suspense thrills another Mr. Spade

Why does our culture perpetuate such negative images of gardens? The Garden of Eden. The Garden of Gethsemane. The Knicks at Madison Square Garden. It seems that bad things happen whenever people go into a garden.

I don't understand it. My own experience in the neighborhood community garden has been entirely positive. I love gardening for many reasons. I garden out of necessity. I garden to be part of my community. But mostly, I garden for the raw, bone-rattling thrill of it.

If gardening is a hobby for some, for me it's subsistence agriculture. Growing your own food saves money and is a good emergency food supply. And you know that your harvest is wholesome, containing only the organic compost you added to the soil.

But gardening is necessary for another reason. There's no doubt that we live in marvelous times. Our rovers are exploring Mars. Our computers connect us with the world. Our children have battery-powered lollipop spinners. Anything is possible. Yet one fact remains: If you want a decent tomato in this country, you have to grow it yourself.

Moreover, working in a community garden is a bold affirmation of the joys of city life. It shows that we urbanites are not a bunch of atoms bouncing off one another; we're part of a community. To our rural friends with their boasting about how they leave their doors unlocked at night, we say: That's nothing! We essentially leave our groceries sitting out in a vacant, inner-city lot overnight, and they're still there in the morning!

In three years tending our communal plot, I've had only one problem with theft. A few heads of broccoli were stolen last season. I was annoyed, but if the neighborhood's biggest danger is roving gangs of toughs who pilfer broccoli, then I feel pretty safe.

Necessity and community spirit are all well and good, but here's really why I garden: It's a nonstop, heart-pounding, adrenaline rush!

Each spring, I carefully plan my garden plot. I estimate the last frost date and start seeds indoors several weeks ahead. I diligently harden off the seedlings and gently plant them in the garden. Then I stand back and admire the young plants I have nurtured so lovingly as they stand proudly in neat rows.

When they're all dead a few days later, I scatter seeds directly in the ground.

Soon, tiny spinach, tomato, and pepper plants push through the surface and reach for the sun.

Working without the benefit of rows, I find that even weeding can be a fun challenge: Which green snippets stay and which go? Soon I learn to recognize my seedlings and pull up everything else.

Occasionally, though, I notice a weed that seems stronger, more purposeful, somehow less "weedy" than the others. Some primal instinct stays my hand, and I let it grow.

In a while, this mystery plant is thriving, fuller and more lush than all the other weeds and seedlings. These volunteers, whose seeds apparently drift over from the abundant plots surrounding mine, always do much better than the things I plant intentionally.

Last year it was tomatillo. The small "weed" with the odd pointy leaves that I almost yanked out eventually grew into an enormous tomatillo plant. It took over about half my plot, crowding out the scrawny cucumber and pepper plants that I had tended with such care.

It was a wonderful surprise. What's so great about cucumbers and peppers, anyway? When this unusual plant began producing dozens of husky little fruits, I was transported to a whole new world of tangy green salsas.

This method of random gardening, which I highly recommend, is one of the delights of a community garden. It has introduced me to many exotic vegetables I would never have thought to grow myself. My garden now contains plants not found on most grocers' shelves: tomatillo, kohlrabi, dandelions, crabgrass, and thistles - to name just a few.

This year my volunteer is a vine of some sort. It already towers over the adjacent tomato plant and threatens to smother my wimpy corn stalks, but I don't care. Skilled gardeners know exactly what's growing in their garden. But where's the excitement in that? My garden is a source of endless surprises for the whole family. Perhaps our mystery vine will give us yummy butternut squash. Or will we snack on zucchini bread come autumn? Maybe we'll be carving pumpkins for Halloween!

Suspense. That's what keeps us coming back to the garden.

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