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A renter struggles to make a garden her own

Nicole Cammorata

My landlord likes to mow down my flowers. What started a few years ago as a careless pass over some newly sprouted seedlings culminated last summer in the full-on massacre of my flower bed.

I’d spent months cultivating a wall of morning glories, training the vines from the chain-link fence in the front yard onto a railing going up the front steps — the pink, purple, blue, and white flowers a happy greeting upon arriving home after many a weary day. Inside the chain link, I’d nurtured a tribe of sunflowers, diligently watering and anticipating the day when their buds would finally open. The neighbors often commented on how beautiful the flowers were. In a flash, they were all gone, hacked and chopped to bits, months of growth scattered in the dirt.

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Being a renter-gardener isn’t easy, especially not for someone who spends her free time daydreaming about the grandeur of farming and the romance of living off the land. This land is not my own, after all. I’ve been living on the top floor of a triple-decker for three years now, and have been forced to settle into a kind of peaceful acceptance of my limitations. There are eight community gardens in Somerville, which is where I live, and it seems like someone has to die before a new plot opens up. (I am in line behind about 50 other people for a spot.)

There’s a swath of grass next to our house where I’ve built a raised bed. I made sure to check that I was allowed to garden on this space before building anything, of course. But when my third and fourth calls to the landlord went unanswered, I decided to go rogue, figuring that the lack of a “no” was permission enough. At the time, I had been reading Novella Carpenter’s excellent memoir about urban farming, called “Farm City,” and was inspired by her creative agricultural pursuits in Oakland.

A few boards and some screws and a heap of dirt later and my time as a guerrilla gardener had begun.

The meager 6-by-6-foot square has churned out an impressive variety over the years as I’ve experimented with the space. There have been the requisite tomatoes and basil for sure, and the rapid reach of green beans. Radishes were ambitious, as was a variety of lettuces. The eggplants’ success was a pleasant surprise, producing swollen purple fruit well into the fall, while attempts at broccoli and peppers have fallen flat.

I am fascinated by the idea that I can grow my own food here. Though living in a city with very restricted green space, I can eat fresh lettuce grown without pesticides, pluck ripe tomatoes, and pull carrots out of the ground. I may dream about the fictional garden of my future, where I’ll be able to spread out and plant sprawling fields of watermelons and pumpkins and rows upon rows of corn. But right now, this will have to suffice.

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During World War I and World War II, lean times meant that growing one’s own food was not just the norm, it was encouraged. Government campaign slogans urging people to “Dig for victory” helped to proliferate Victory gardens, as they were called, in backyards from the United States to the United Kingdom. My own grandmother was still cultivating her Victory garden of berries and vegetables in her Dorchester backyard well into the 1990s..

One night after I’d built the raised bed, my landlord happened to be at the house moving the trash bins to the curb. I had my gardening boots on and a flat of lanky beans in hand. I waved and then gestured at the garden.

“Hope this is OK,” I said, before adding, “I left you a couple messages.” My voice turned up at the end even though this wasn’t a question.

He said it was fine as long as I didn’t water the garden with a hose. “Water bill,” he said.

The landlord clipped my morning glories again just last week. Took hedge trimmers to the top of the chain-link fence and hacked off the leader shoots to be even with the fence. Every night when I return home from work, I take care to tuck the vines back into the metal fencing, urging it into a sort of urban-organic tapestry. After three years you’d think it was obvious that these were not weeds, that there was a person behind all this growth.

Last year when all the sunflowers were chopped down, I stood in front of the garden and cried. When the neighbors — who I often exchanged a simple “hello” with — asked what had happened to the flowers, they were appalled. Some brought me cuttings from their own gardens to express their condolences. Others brought over packets full of seeds and positive wishes for next year’s efforts.

In recent months, the vegetable garden has become an impromptu litter box for one of the neighborhood cats. In the front yard, there’s a 7-inch rat who has burrowed beneath the Black Eyed Susans, peonies, and cornflowers. I’ve tried flushing him out with the hose, but then again: it’s no more my space than it is his. I’ve built fences and strung up shiny detractors for the birds, but I know it’s a losing battle. I will simply turn over the soil and start again next year.

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