Immigration and an Urban Garden

This column first was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Form on April 7, 2008. 

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…(Psalm 24:1)

On Saturday my kids and I planted some tomatoes in our garden.

Well, technically it wasn’t in our garden. We live in a townhouse with no back yard. Our garden is made out of planters on the patio, but this year I want to grow a lot of tomatoes, and I’ve had little luck growing tomatoes in planters. The plants have been healthy and the fruit good, but the yield has been low. In past years our garden’s tomatoes have been an occasional treat: once a week or so at the height of tomato season, I’ve been able to cut up one tomato at a time and serve it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil and pepper. This is nice, but I want to make salsa and spaghetti sauce. I want to put up cans of tomatoes for the winter. I may regret it come July, but this year I want to be invaded. I want to see heirlooms slowly fester on my counter until the fruit flies won’t leave us alone. In order to get this desired bumper crop my family had to emigrate a few feet, to cross a legal boundary, to sink our fingers into the earth on property that isn’t ours.

So this year I broke the law (or the condo association rules anyway) and, corrupting my children in the process, I planted six tomato plants in a sunny spot just beyond the fence that separates our patio from a bit of unused common property between us and the urban stream behind our place. I grew up in rural Northern California, behind the Redwood Curtain, a place where marijuana is a serious cash crop. Clandestine cultivation was a way of life for many of my childhood friends and neighbors, but this was my first foray into the world of furtive gardening. We’ll see what happens. My thumb is hardly green and the soil in my new tomato patch is rotten.

For reasons I don’t understand, the people who built our housing complex (a group of radical Catholic women intent on providing low cost housing in Silicon Valley who are otherwise beyond reproach) removed all of the topsoil from the property and built our houses on the underlying clay. The place is landscaped, but behind our house the effort has been minimal.

So my act of subversion, this moment of illegal immigration, began with breaking up the clay with a new shovel. Next, my kids and I dug a trench which we filled with potting soil and composted steer turds, this latter element being a source of great fascination, even for my four year old daughter, Nellie, who insisted on wearing her sparkly-red Dorothy shoes in our secret garden. Last I checked the tomatoes looked happy in their new home.

I won’t attempt to justify the location of my tomatoes legalistically. If I were on the Homeowner’s association board (and I am, incidentally) I’d find myself in violation of the rules that govern our community life. I will say, however, that the very small bit of land now hosting tomatoes behind my house will be better because my kids and I made it hospitable to tomatoes, and that establishes a connection—if not ownership, exactly—between us and the little patch of earth.
A lot of Americans believe that a person’s connection to a particular place is conferred by birth within established borders or by the official stamp of a visa. I’m not sure I agree. I was born and spent a few of my earliest years in the county where I currently reside, but I’ve never felt terribly connected to the dirt upon which I live. I can see how planting a garden could change that, and it strikes me that my children may grow up with a deeper connection to the soil of this place than I have, even though three of my four kids were born on another continent.

That, I suppose, is the grace of the earth. People move, often across borders and oceans, and after arriving in a new home they can plant a garden and the earth welcomes them. This is a divine connection that makes a mockery of borders and fences and visas and immigration laws.

To my knowledge God has never established a national border, but God has given us the earth; so long as there are tomatoes to plant we’ll always find a home.

16 thoughts on “Immigration and an Urban Garden

  1. Thanks, Pat. I’m now officially a guerrilla gardener. I don’t know if it will make the tomatoes taste better or not…


  2. As you know, my father ( your grandfather) held a strong belief which he put into practice:always leave your patch of earth better than you found it. Since he was an Iowa farmer, he never had to figure out how to manage the urban garden, but I know he would heartily approve of your tomato patch and your choice of fertilizer. Love, Mom

  3. I grew up in the hills above Redwood City. We had a fertile vacant lot next door, and my dad planted melons and corn there, watering them with a hose tossed over the fence. Not legal, but so productive! Back then everyone had a little vegetable garden going, and the children would pull a few baby carrots , wash them in the hose, then crunch them up. I remember eating tiny yellow pear shaped tomatos, warm from the sunlight. We had rabbits, and all our manure went into the garden. One year mom and dad went charter boat fishing, and brought home all the heads and guts. We dug a deep hole to bury them, them planted string beans over them. There were not poles long enough for those bean plants! They reached for the moon!

  4. I think it’s really great that you and the kids planted the rogue tomatoes–especially since you are someone I generally don’t think of as a tomato lover! Hope The Association doesn’t find out!

  5. I’ve been outed by my sister. It’s true. I don’t like tomatoes!

    Actually, I like them cooked, and last year I liked the ones I grew in a pot, so long as they were smothered in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pepper, basil and a pinch of salt (but don’t tell my cardiologist about the salt).



  6. My siblings keep me honest.

    I DO hate tomatoes, but the other five people in my house love them. Maybe the real reason I want a bumper crop is so that they’ll get sick of tomatoes and will beg me to plant cucumbers next year instead.

  7. I like my tomatoes smothered with vanilla ice cream! We haven’t had much luck with tomatoes yet. I’ve got to build a greenhouse.

    But then my Mendocino neighbors will think I’m growing illicit tomatoes.

    That was a very nice article. It has been great getting out into my own garden, a garden for which Vivian and Colette can take most of the credit (I’m just the technical support).

    Spring is a lovely time of year and I can feel my mood lifting again.


  8. I contest that God did not create borders as expressed in this little anecdote;

    One day God said to the Archangel Gabriel, “Gabe, today I’m going to create Scotland. I will make it a country with dark, beautiful mountains and purple glens. I will fill its rivers with salmon. I will give it all the best ingredients for brewing whisky. And I will fill the seabeds around its shores with vast deposits of oil and gas.”

    “Wait a minute” said the Archangel Gabriel. “Don’t you think you’re being a bit too generous to these Scots?” “You really think so?” said God. “Just wait until you see what they’ll have to put up with when I create the English as their neighbours!”

  9. Craig,

    HA! Unlike God, the English have created a lot of borders, and the world continues to suffer: Iraq, for example, and Israel/Palestine. Burma. Kashmir.

    But then they also eat fried tomatoes for breakfast.

    And not with Vanilla ice cream either (my brother is testing my gag-reflex).

    Mo, glad you liked the article. Viva la Primavera!


  10. Ben, we are not entirely innocent as a nation in the old Empire build ourselves, in fact you will probably find that we were at the fore front, or front line of many a British escapade for auld Victoria. Mind you a lot of good did come out of it.
    One of Scotlands most famous sons was born not 4 miles from me and was fundamental in, I loathe to say discover but explore a lot of Africa and was instrumental in highlighting the slave trade. Have you heard of Dr David Livingstone? His house in Blantyre is now a museum to him and his anti slave trade work.
    What is wrong with vanilla ice cream?

  11. Dr. Livingston I presume?

    I also should be very quick to point out that the USA is far from innocent when it comes to establishing unjust borders. In fact I live behind one such unjust border, the one that established the line between the US and Mexico. We pretty much stole the American southwest, form the people who stole it from Spain, who stole it from the Native Americans. So it goes.

    And there is nothing wrong with Vanilla ice cream. The problem is with me. I’m the only person I know who doesn’t like the stuff.



  12. Your streach for planting earth reminded me of the wonderful example of
    how our refugee family removed the boards from between the cement slabs
    in front of their apartment to plant tomatoes and a special flower from Croatia.
    And they prospered! Good luck to you! GP

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