10 Jun Urban Gardens & the Need for Peace

I love an urban garden. I’m talking about those walled-in, tidy, overly cultivated nooks and crannies tucked behind and in between townhouses and apartment buildings—mossy courtyards, blue-stone terraces, Zen pebble-scapes, ivied brick walls. These tiny oases, these little scraps of green, these small stretches of sun and shade make city living livable. If you’ve ever wondered why people eat “al fresco” on a dirty sidewalk of a noisy city street, busses rumbling past, taxis bleating, and the nearest tree a half block away, you should consider: city dwellers are desperate for the out-of-doors and will take it however they can get it. Which is why the urban garden is so important.

Jill and I are lucky. Our back yard is twenty feet wide and sixty-five feet long. It’s the largest urban yard you’ll see in downtown Baltimore and likely the largest yard you’ll see attached to a townhouse in most cities. We’ve learned that, originally (i.e., a 110 years ago), the builders planned on putting an alley house at the back of our lot, which would have cut the yard in half, making it more like the normal Baltimore city yard. When we took over this house in 2000, it had been abandoned by a fraternity that—in addition to wrecking the house—had run down the back yard, leaving it a weedy remnant of the lush rose garden Mrs. Wilson had tended for sixty-some years. The yard was riven with gopher holes. Or so we thought. We quickly learned that these were rat holes.

Most of the rats lived in the ivy that was heaped on the wooden fence between us and the neighbor’s yard. They pretty much had run of the land. We’d see them out in broad daylight, sunning themselves in the weeds. They might as well have laid out lawn chairs. Had I a rifle, I would have run amok and blasted them. As it was, we realized we couldn’t get rid of the rats unless we built a brick wall on that side to keep them out. (We had a brick wall on the street side.) We got that brick wall, finally, in 2005. And the rats went away. That is, they kept to the other side of the wall because it was too much trouble hiking up and over.

Our yard is now four years old and growing woolly with greenery. We did save three or four of Mrs. Wilson’s rose bushes. These are old-style roses, meaning their blossoms are flatter than today’s varieties and they bloom only once a season. If you are six feet or taller, you’ll be able to peer over our brick wall at the garden and our many rose bushes. Most passersby aren’t that tall and so they can’t see what’s become of the yard. But some of the curious visited us last week during our neighborhood’s annual Garden Walk.

A survey of the urban gardens in our neighborhood would reveal everything from a garage-top vegetable garden (the garage had to be reinforced to take the weight equivalent of a three-story building) to a carp pond that holds koi the size of housecats. My favorite kind of urban garden is the tiny space whose every inch has been lovingly cultivated. To get to these yards, you have to take the alley.

Baltimore is a city of alleys. Our alleys are so well-developed that most have names and many have houses. Alley houses allowed the working class to live near their jobs and, as a result, made for a more vibrant city, since the poorer folk lived so close to the rich. Because of its alley culture and its miles and miles of row houses, Baltimore is one of America’s most European cities and, in fact, during World War II, the U.S. military ran mock bombing runs over Baltimore because it most resembled a European city.

Oddly, ours is one of the few yards that does NOT let out into the alley. Because we are a corner house, we have two gates that open to the sidewalk. Jill has been asking me, for years, to brick around our tree wells on that sidewalk. Our tree wells have been a weedy, litter-cluttered, dog dump ever since we’ve moved in. So, encouraged by the imminent Garden Walk, I did the tree wells at last. Now, when neighbors compliment me on a job well done, I joke, “It only took us ten years to get to the sidewalk.”

It is a great pleasure to putter in the garden, to rescue the hens and chicks from the wild violets, to wonder at how our prettily placed rocks create the convincing illusion that they have always been here, to watch a butterfly alight on the purple blossom-droop of a buddleia, to admire the moss in the shady corner near our Japanese painted fern, which has grown remarkably large . . . We can lose ourselves for hours, tending this small island of dirt, never mind the trucks rumbling past on 28th street.