The Dirt

A cucumber plant weaves its way across the garden bed, wrapping its curly tendrils around a pepper plant I grew from seed. Above the pushy cucurbit, a black-eyed Susan bobs in the wind. Its bright-yellow petals have finally emerged, and I can't help but coo over it. Green tomatoes, water-heavy and streaked with a ripening red, bow to the stubby sunflower that popped up unexpectedly (a gift from the birds, I suspect).

Peaceful repose: The author's small, roadside garden has become a favorite reading spot and a surprising way to connect with neighbors. Photo by Jonathan Welch

This 5-by-20-foot garden sits beside the sidewalk in my Asheville neighborhood. And while a butterfly struggles to reach the nectar within a squash blossom, I ponder the mysteries: From seed to harvest, my garden is always in motion.

In early spring, inspired by my mother's devotion to her land — and praying that I may have inherited some measure of her ridiculously green thumb — I set out to plant a garden of my own. At first, my imagination conjured rose arbors and asparagus beds, along with elegant rows of proud vegetables and sprawling wildflower fields teeming with color. But I reined in the daydream: A modest plot outside my Montford apartment would have to suffice.

The mission began with clearing a stockpile of trash, broken bottles and composting leaves. Ready to get dirty, I was determined to uncover the rich soil hidden beneath the long-neglected plot. After hours of shoveling, sweating and piling, and when the last glass shards were cleared, I sat and admired the empty bed. Dirt had never looked so good.

That's when a neighbor of mine — an older woman often seen strolling the neighborhood with her dog — waltzed up. After an exchange of names and a brief chat, Mary-Ellen leaned in close, cleared her throat and said, "I know what this soil needs." Eager for advice, I perked up. "You need Black Kow manure — lots of it, by the looks of it — and mushroom compost. That's Mary-Ellen's secret ingredient. Use a good old heap of it," she said, winking.

A week later, I stood ankle deep in Black Kow layered with white, furry-looking compost. After days of fussing over the mixture, I planted my first seeds and seedlings. And as spring warmed the earth, tiny sprouts soon emerged. For the next few weeks, I watched the wiry sprigs grow taller and the seedlings stronger. I'd been sure the rain would beat them all to pieces, the neighbor's cats would eat them, or the soil I'd labored over would prove infertile. But each day, my plants grew.

Now I often sit beside the garden, reading and watching the ongoing transformation. And I'm surprised by how often my neighbors stop to chat when they stroll by, children and dogs in tow. Our conversations always circle around the garden:

"What you need is some good mulch. It will certainly help with the weeds and keep your plants hydrated."

"The trick with tomatoes is to pull the early buds straight off the plant. Straight off, and your plant will shoot up, taller than anything."

"Girl, you're doin' fine work on that there garden."

"You won't believe this, but years ago a friend of mine lived here. She always wanted to turn this spot into a garden. It makes me smile to see it now."

With the August heat upon us, my garden bursts with produce. 'Fairy-tale' eggplants plump up and sweeten on stocky limbs. Edamame offer fuzzy soybean pods by the handful. The 'yellow crookneck' squash competes constantly with a patty-pan variety, the prickly limbs feuding for space like sisters.

Though I'm the only one who tends the garden every day, my partner and neighbors help keep up with the weeding, watering and cooing. In return, they receive bouquets of 'rainbow' chard, lacey kale, collard greens stunted by too much heat and sun but nonetheless tasty, mint sprigs for tea and bundled sage and thyme. We all agree that nothing has ever tasted so good.

When I started my garden venture, I hoped for sweet tomatoes and lovely wildflowers, but I had no idea my garden would have such an impact on the neighborhood. People notice this modest effort — and, like me, they look forward to watching it grow and change. I've learned that even a tiny garden in the city can yield an impressive amount of food: enough to share with the community that grew around it.

Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt can be reached at or 251-1333, ext. 120.

About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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