Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Crop that Never Fails
By Joel Knepp
July 2011 Issue

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Summer is is here at long last and our Victorian Village garden is galloping into productivity. We have a small front yard and a German Village-style back yard paved with old street bricks (Nelsonville Block, for you aficionados) and flower beds around the edges. But the crown jewel of our little estate is the side yard. Long before the Short North was hip and expensive, we had the good luck, and I like to think the good sense, to purchase the vacant lot next to our 1910 frame home. I won’t quote the price of the lot because no one would believe it. I will say that it was the exact balance of our meager savings account at the time. But that’s another story.

When I say that our newly acquired lot was vacant, I mean only that the house that once occupied it was gone. However, the property was generously strewn with a variety of items: old hardware, car parts, wire, broken toys, discarded housewares, and unidentifiable items of every description, plus globs of concrete, no doubt the leftovers of many a home sidewalk repair job. Apparently, the lot had functioned for years as the community dump. We undertook a cleanup and beautification effort, starting with several large truckloads of junk hauled away to someone else’s dump. Then came some tree removal and the importation of “topsoil” to even things out a bit. This so-called topsoil turned out to be an excellent material from which to fashion ash trays. Thank you, Slinger Jones!

Despite setbacks, a semi-flat, lawn-like area eventually developed and long process of experimentation began which continues to this day. Trees, plants, structures, hedges, and half-baked landscape concepts came and mostly went. Failures include, but are not restricted to almond, cherry, poplar, and nectarine trees; mulberry, raspberry and gooseberry bushes; and a large, open compost heap. We count as successes flowering perennials, apple and pear trees, a grape arbor, and six raised vegetable beds.

For a long time, we have been producing wine, food, and flowers (in priority order) from that side yard. All gardeners, urban and otherwise, know that each year is different, and that plants that produce well in some or even most years will bottom out from time to time, while others will go inexplicably nuts under identical conditions. We’ve had spectacular years with apples and at the same time had virtually no grapes. A poor pick of peppers may coincide with a beautiful bean harvest. If you grow a lot different crops, a good percentage will probably produce in any given year. This season is barely underway but it’s safe to say that all over the neighborhood, tulips, roses, and irises have been outrageously successful.

And yet there is one crop at our place and many old city properties which produces perennially, bountifully, unfailingly. It knows no bad years. No matter how harsh the winter, it is always there in springtime, sparkling amidst the dirt. It is not deterred by insects, blight, or infestations of any kind. It emerges faithfully whether in bright sun or in total shade. Spring freezes and driving rains only encourage it. It needs no mulch or fertilizers, organic or otherwise. I’m referring to broken glass.

It would be difficult to calculate just how much broken glass we’ve harvested over the years; certainly thousands of pieces, and quite likely an oil-drumfull. On any day, especially after a rain, one can easily spot eight or ten pieces in a casual stroll through the grounds. These days, most are little dirt diamonds no wider that a pea. But irregular chunks the size of a silver dollar or larger aren’t all that unusual, even in beds that have been worked over and over. Sometimes I’ll come across a jagged shard of what might have been window glass sticking out among tree roots; ours is not the idyllic barefoot yard of the suburbs. Our fail-safe glass crop comes in all styles, colors, and configurations, although in some areas beer-bottle glass clearly predominates. I always get a kick out of textured sections of Tab bottles (prehistoric diet pop), or shimmery bits of decorative plates. One takes one’s excitement where one finds it.

With all this glass oozing forth year after year, deep questions loom. Why is there so much? Who put it there? When will it stop? Without the aid of a cultural historian or perhaps an archaeologist, I can only speculate. Clearly, there must be a ton of broken glass in the ground for this process to continue unabated for nearly three decades, and Mother Earth must be working overtime to spit it out so I can do my part in faithfully removing it to the trash. I’m also thinking that before the days of Twister, Guitar Hero, and Red, White, and Boom, the flinging of various glass items outdoors and perhaps even through windows both open and closed must have been a popular Short North pastime. Perhaps the glass is a result of early OSU football riot. Maybe target shooting bottles and jars with air rifles was a major recreational pursuit in the ‘hood before we arrived. I spent my youth in other states and countries; is the practice of neighborhood trash pick-up in Columbus relatively new? All I know is, this is the one crop that never fails, and it will only stop when I can no longer bend over and get back up and finally have to check in to Westminster-Thurber.

© 2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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