• Otter Views: The Alley Garden

    by Tom Stevens

    The Summer Olympics telecasts from London have been so riveting I’ve neglected my other summer commitment – the alley garden.

    This project occupies a narrow dirt alley that skirts one side – the shady side, alas — of my Pacific Grove rental. The same alley shelters the trash and recycling bins used by the other renters.

    When I moved in last spring, the alley was living up to its name. The previous tenants had used it as a dump for broken tools and discarded motorcycle parts. Judging from the amply-strewn evidence, the alley also served as a run for large dogs or perhaps, small horses. The weeds profited handsomely from this arrangement.

    Any sensible renter would simply have swung the gate closed and walked away, entering the alley only to wheel out the weekly bins.

    But I am a would-be gardener; my patron, the saint of lost causes. Gazing at the alley for the first time, I thought: “what a great place to grow tomatoes. It’s already fertilized.”


    The next door neighbor tried to warn me. “Summer here’s not very tomato-friendly,” she advised. “There’s more sun in Lithuania. Maybe you could try mushrooms?”

    That was a year ago. Older and wiser now, I’ve tried many crops and had many failures. Forget tomatoes. Ditto bush beans, peppers, zucchini, carrots and cucumbers. Chinese peas looked promising for a while, but then powdery mildew crept out of the drizzly fog like some 1950s horror movie scourge.

    In addition to crop trials, I used that first year to track the sun’s course through the sky — on the days it was visible. I found to my dismay that the sun bathes the other side of the house 11 months out of 12. When a few slivers of sunlight do slant down into my alley, they don’t generally reach the ground.

    Undaunted, I decided to raise the plants up toward the sunlight. A major house remodel down the block produced a dumpster full of scrap lumber the owners were happy to part with. Soon spindly-legged, plank-sided planting beds lined my alley like gurneys in a hospital hallway. The crops were nearer the sun now, but they were still in intensive care.

    As a last resort, I nailed planking along the top of the fence, creating a platform just wide enough for a row of pots. Into these went portable crops like parsley, green onions and cooking herbs. As the sun sliced obliquely through the alley, I would hustle the pots to wherever the light happened to fall.

    I did get some parsley.

    Finally I sought my neighbor’s advice again. She and her husband have lived on this street for many years, and she has raised many gardens in the fog. Her lavender is the envy of the neighborhood.

    “What’s your secret?” I asked.

    “Purple,” she said.

    “Purple what?”

    “Purple plants. They seem to do really well on this block.”

    So now the alley garden grows copious crops of purple lettuce, purple onions and purple cabbage. I’m on the lookout for a good purple mushroom.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on August 10, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views


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