City Seedling: Bedfellows

Editor’s Note: We’re happy to welcome back our blogger Emily Helck. City Seedling is a blog about urban gardening in Jersey City. Enjoy!

Ah, spring in the city. The cherry trees are blooming, and then being maimed by overzealous maintenance workers. (Spring is when you’re not really supposed to prune these.) Birds are singing, and then being drowned out by police sirens and Mr. Softee. All of these signs of spring meant it was time to get back into the garden.

I marched over to the community garden where I have a small plot, garden tools and new key in hand. Naturally the key didn’t work, but I was undeterred. After a tight squeeze through the gate, which had me thankful I had resisted getting Choc-o-Pain for breakfast, I was greeted by a new member of the feral cat colony that lives in the garden. I was happy to have an assistant.

Feral Cat

Cute, sweet, and not feral — this girl needs a home.

I arrived at my plot, which was in a sorry state. A health crisis last summer meant I had stayed away from the garden, and had seriously neglected my plot. I was eager to clean things up and start fresh. I was looking forward to seeing my sturdy strawberries with their happy leaves, sending out runners and taking root no matter how much I ignored them. I was sure that the strawberries, along with the madly reproducing lambs ear and monster sage plant, would be there to greet me.

My plot

My plot. Yikes!

Um, all the strawberries were gone. I guess it’s possible that they all died from some kind of strawberry blight, although everyone else in the garden still had loads of strawberry plants in their plots. I’m not saying someone took them, but we do have a history of mysterious produce thefts in our garden. I sighed and chalked it up to the cost of growing green things in the city.

I began cleaning out my plot — weeding, raking, pulling out old plants and the occasional bit of garbage. After a few minutes, I noticed an odd screaming sound. Eventually I realized that someone neighboring the garden was playing recorded hawk screams every two minutes, I guess to scare away or pester vermin. I doubt it works on mice, but it was working on me.

A stowaway carrot

A stowaway carrot from last spring.


Here’s how I prepared my bed this year:

Step 1: Begin by weeding out whatever you don’t want.

Step 2: Rake out all the dead leaves and dried plant matter that has accumulated since the fall. (You may choose to allow the leaves to remain, and incorporate them into your bed. I usually do, as they have lots of nutrients and enhance the soil. But, in the interest of neatness, this year I decided to add this rich brown matter to the community compost.)

Step 3: Prepare the soil. This is where it gets a little tricky. Everyone has a different recipe for amending their soil in spring, different mixes of compost, peat moss, vermiculite, manure, and so on. Frankly it becomes a little too much like math for me. I usually lose patience and wind up doing some haphazard application of fish emulsion. This year I saw a raised bed soil booster kit from Gardener’s Supply Company. It was premeasured and came in a cute bag. Sold. I added this per the instructions.

My Plot 2

My Plot. Ta-da. Much better

And there you have it. Ta-da. Much better. I kicked around for a few more minutes, trying to decide if I should test my soil for lead and other contaminants. I did it a few years ago, and there was surprisingly little contamination. The prerecorded screaming hawk was beginning to get the better of me, so I squeezed back through the fence and headed to my apartment.

City dwellers know that nothing really belongs to the individual. We live stacked on top of each other, and even our sacred personal space is routinely invaded as we ride public transit. I was reminded that day that gardening is no different.

Do you have a tips or questions about preparing your soil? Tell us in the comments!

Photos by Emily Helck

Emily Helck

a lifelong New Jersey resident who moved to Jersey City in 2006. She earned an MA in English and writing from Fordham University. In addition to blogging about gardening in the city, her personal blog RTONJ is about being a young adult with cancer. She lives downtown with a dog, two cats, and her husband.