I am about to walk down the street with dirty carrots. It doesn’t seem like anything earth shattering – just me, at dusk, walking back from my community garden plot during a break in the clouds on a rainy late summer day. But now that I really think about it: today is the first time I have ever even seen a dirty carrot. Sure, I have bought carrots at the grocery store – organic carrots even. And carrots from the local farmer’s market with a bit of dirt still clinging to some crevices. And have gotten carrots from my farm share in funny shapes and sizes. This fresh vegetable obsession might have even started with the carrots from my grandmother’s garden when I was young, surely eaten dipped in ranch dressing or shredded into cole slaw. Those carrots might have needed one last good washing to get the last bit of grime off, but I had still never seen a truly dirty carrot until a few minutes ago.
This is the third year of my community garden. The first year was the garden’s unveiling – its transformation from a defunct gas station, cleaned up and presented to the lucky twenty who made the list of inaugural gardeners. I lived one hundred yards away and walked by the once-deserted lot every day. I called as soon as a sign announcing the forming of a community garden was posted to the fence, snow still sitting in gray drifts along the avenue. After years of growing stunted cherry tomatoes on my shady back porch, I was excited at the chance for a better harvest and a replenishing herb supply for cooking. The garden opened on July first, with neat rows of raised beds filled with clean, trucked-in dirt, and my premier crop was tomatoes purchased as seedlings, repotted herbs from my window sill, and a late planting of eggplant – the only vegetable still clinging to life at the local nursery so long into the northeast’s brief growing season. I made friends with my plot neighbors. We had weeding parties fueled by donated scones from the bakery down the street before the crops ripened, and shared herbs and a few vegetables after the harvest.
The second year I vowed to start my plants early, so I purchased a small plastic greenhouse and a dozen packs of seeds. I watched as the clear top of the greenhouse fogged with life, and the new shoots push from the dirt. But when I introduced my seedlings to life out of doors, many became squirrel food or shriveled in the still cool evenings. They had outgrown their plastic home, but were not strong enough for the real world. I supplemented the few hearty survivors with seedlings again. My surprise was a growth of dill which had reseeded itself from the previous year. Vigorous, disorganized and still learning about its environment, much like myself. I had seen the sprouts in the early days of spring, but thought for certain that they would be killed by the late frosts of New England. But they weren’t. Which got me thinking… if dill can survive the softer frosts of mid-spring, what else can?
The third year I did my homework. Kale, chard, onions, lettuce, peas, beets and carrots can all be planted in early spring. I filled the garden with these hearty seeds, the first to enter the lot of barren plots for the season. I watched as they sprouted, and steeled myself to thin my crop, knowing that it was the best, the only route to success, lest overcrowded kill my crops before squirrels or mother nature. My plot had lettuce before some gardeners even prepped for the season. I had kale and chard by late May. Beets began popping out of the soil by mid-June. Herbs – some had wintered, some from an early seeding – were spreading. Zucchini plants from the previous year decided to finally show their bright yellow flowers. I felt that this garden was my best success yet. I would finally have a bounty to share with friends and advice to give my plot neighbors whom I sometimes saw on weekends as we collectively weeded and trimmed and harvested. My garden was a thriving mix of thick rows I had sown with bursts of surprise seedlings scattered randomly among them. Which was placed where by nature or my own careless planting I wasn’t certain, but my thriving unruliness gave me a sense of pride. And then there was the row of bushy green tops. I almost mistook them for parsley as they uniformly sprouted and started to grow. But the leaves did not widen as much as their flat-leaf neighbors and one day I saw the orange coin peeking from the dirt. I monitored the orange and watched it widen. Unlike beets you cannot see how large the root is until there is no opportunity to return it to the dirt to continue to grow.
Finally, today, I noticed an inch of orange begging to be plucked. I had gone to the garden for a handful of cilantro, specifically. But how could I resist poking beneath the squash leaves, watching the flowers morph into speckled green? How could I not notice the few orange roots that were getting so wide that they started to crowd their neighbor? I decided that one needed to go. I would shred it and add it to my salad tonight. If it was small, no harm done, the other carrots needed room. But I tugged at the leafy carrot top and it released itself only by another inch, exposing its true girth. It was a big one – supermarket sized, and ready to be pulled. I tugged and twisted, and dug around the sides, trying not to disturb its smaller neighbor. I had dirt under my nails and stray carrot greens littered the gravel walkway between my plot and the next. Finally the carrot gave way, leaving a large carrot-sized hole. I pulled another, and then one more.
Now I am standing in the garden with three large dirty carrots, their green foliage dramatic, their orange more cylindrical than conical, and one with a small round growth on its side where a thin wayward root had reached out for more nutrients. Damp dirt clings to their deep grooves. These are not supermarket carrots – they are too imperfect, too real, too much a product of a little seed planted in the middle of a little plot of soil in the middle of a city. My only small bag holds a bit of delicate cilantro, thus I will have to carry the carrots home gripping their tops. I contemplate washing them, but the rain means that no watering is needed and I don’t feel like unwinding the hose for a simple spray. So I walk home clutching my bunch of carrots. Past the biker on his way back from work. Past the firemen standing in front of a duplex whose alarm had been triggered. Past the hurrying drivers and pedestrians on their cell phones. Past the man standing outside waiting for his Chinese take-out. And as I walk I think about the fact that I am walking home with a bunch of imperfect yet perfectly dirty carrots. And who, of the people I had passed, has ever seen a bunch of dirty carrots? I know I hadn’t – not in the country nor the city – until that moment twenty minutes ago when I had pulled those carrots from the ground.