So, when we found our new apartment in Astoria last fall, aside from it's quirkiness, location and size, one of the big selling points was the presence of a backyard. It's a relatively large backyard, maybe 25' x 30', and, though most of it is covered with a concrete deck, it still has a sizable four foot wide strip of earth along three sides, and other random patches as well.
And so it began last October and November, buying a cheap but decent, workable shovel and trolling for affordable flower bulbs in the clearance section at Home Depot. I settled on tulips, with a side of irises. I turned the soil along the far wall, where the solitary existing bit of greenery lived; a tall Tree of Heaven - essentially a large weed-tree, but quite solid and providing of a modicum of shade. I removed large rocks and a portion of the smaller ones, loosening the soil and raising the bed a touch. I buried the bulbs deeper than normal due to the lateness of the season and built a small stone boarder with some of the rocks I had recovered from the soil. The work spanned two or three days, and November was a bit late to be planting bulbs, but I took satisfaction in the effort nevertheless.
A somewhat delayed and mild winter gave my poor novice bulb planting the chance it needed, and sure enough, come March, I was rewarded with the first signs of life, as the tulips began to push their way through the rocky soil.
At the same time, I was beginning to see progress on a different front; I had begun vegetable seedlings in trays in my bedroom, balanced across the ironing board configuration of a scavenged Jefferson Chair.
A month later began the backbreaking work of sifting the remaining soil of all rocks, stones and foreign debris. (Literally backbreaking - I dislocated 3 ribs... with the help of a crappy fusion yoga class.) I had been given a book on bio-intensive gardening and was very intent on prepping the soil as well as possible.
So I built a soil sifter out of some hardware cloth and a dresser drawer I pulled from a garbage pile and got to work. I worked anywhere from 3 to 8 hours a day (I have a lot of free time) running shovelful after shovelful of dirt through my earth sieve. This went on for about 6 weeks. About half that time consisted of rain, but I still ended up putting hundreds of hours of work into the project. I know that seems like a lot, but consider the math.
The internet tells me a cubic foot of dirt, presumably with rocks and such, weighs anywhere from 40-80 lbs. Let's be conservative and estimate that my dirt only weighed 40 lb per cubic foot. I moved/sifted approximately 200 (?)* cubic feet of dirt. And I moved it twice (once out and through the sifter into a big pile and then back. More than twice really, as there were a lot of intermediate moves, but to once again be conservative, let's say it only went back and forth once each way. That means that, over the course of 6 weeks, I moved, by myself, 16 metric TONS of dirt. With a SHOVEL.
(*Note: These numbers need to be double checked.)
After the dirt was sifted, I created additional boarders with the large rocks, created a rock path to the water hose by our patio stairs with the remaining small rocks, and then washed all the medium sized rocks and built a small water garden/fish pond out of an old plastic storage bin.
Allow me, for a moment, to pat my own, mostly healed, back.
Around about this time, my seedlings had gotten to plantable size and the last frost date for this area had past, so in went the plants. Mesclun lettuce mixes, collard greens, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, and more. I seeded other things such as squash, peas, carrots, beets and beans directly into the ground and began another round of seedlings for radishes and the like. Herbs went along the edges of the plots.
All that remained was to water and weed. And weed. And weed. They're relentless. It's astonishing how many weeds have managed to take root in such a seemingly small space. And the occasional slug.
The mesclun hit the soil running. After what seemed like only a few weeks I was chewing on my first bits of mixed greens. Fresh, buttery lettuces, lightly sprinkled with balsamic and olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Fantastic.
And then, at varying rates, the other veggies began coming in. The peas took to their scaffolding like a champion, producing handfuls of lovely snap peas. The beans produced a nice harvest, but seems to be done after just one round. The nasturtiums have brightened up my salads with their edible flowers, collard greens have found themselves steamed and soupified, and the first squash died well to my pasta sauce.
And then there are the tomatoes.
At first they seemed obedient, wending their way up nicely through the bamboo and string pyramids I'd built for them from scratch. They looked promising; green and flowering. Then came the July rains and the tomatoes cried freedom. Crawling across the concrete, tearing down their bamboo tripods like caged animals powered by gravity and the sun, the tomatoes, both heirloom and cherry, began questioning my authority. I responded with a spiders web of cotton twine, trying to maintain some semblance of vertical stability. The maneuver worked to some degree, which only has left me with... harvesting.
It's a race against ripening with these tomatoes. Almost as fast as I can pick them, new ones ripen. The ones I've picked explode into over-ripeness in a day or two, splitting and rotting faster than I can pop them into salads or my mouth. I have a plan to enter a tomato jam making frenzy; hopefully that will help stem the tide.
So that's where I am thus far. We'll see what the rest of the summer and fall brings.