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Excerpted from 66 Square Feet – A Delicious Life, by Marie Viljoen

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Suddenly in April, a robin starts to sing. The song is improbably bucolic, lovely in the enormous city. Listening to it, I feel as if I have been holding my breath and am now able to exhale for the first time in months. In the following days, near 5 A.M., the robin is joined by others. They are the Brooklyn dawn chorus, returned from winter quarters.

I am busy: watching things grow. The Etoile Violette and the autumn clematis are launching perfectly vertical shoots, pale red and weaving, vulnerable in their search for support. Bee’s Jubilee opens into loud pink stripes. Roses leaf out, lilies are rising — sappy green skyscrapers under construction. The wisteria is in bud and in a shady corner foam flower… foams. On the gravel floor violets continue to open, delicately and painfully blue. The mint begins to reveal textured leaves which crowd around the bases of the terra cotta pots. Tiny seedlings erupt in corners of the terrace floor and I wait to see their secondary and identifying leaves before pulling them out. I don’t know what they are, yet. They may be useful. I feel like a hoarder.

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Each pot on the edge has turned from a drab repository of sticks into a neat pool of green, a circle of dark earth still visible around its edges. In among the herbs, the chives are in bud, making it hard to cut the leaves for fear of severing future flowers. Undeterred, I snip and strew the first chives of the year over a celebratory boiled egg.

The catnip begins to bloom in earnest. The fig tree’s early leaves are fragile and transparent in the sunlight. The first of the breba crop has emerged from the gray winter branches. I expect it to drop as it always does, but perhaps one will survive to give me an early summer fruit. The Iceberg roses above the doorway spill downwards in their first pink-tinged flush. Alpine strawberries are like green water drops at the tips of their arched stems.

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The trays of warm-weather seedlings destined for the roof farm graduate from the floor of the apartment to the stone table, where they enjoy days of sunshine. They resemble real vegetables and I resist the urge to plant them out on the exposed roof, waiting for the last average frost date to pass, watching the weather reports suspiciously. At the hint of a dip into the 40’s, or a heavy rain shower, I rush them under the outside table and drape its exposed sides with kikois. Vincent, under whose dining chair the seedlings have already lived for two weeks, eyes me warily.

And so do the slugs and snails: I wander sleepily onto the terrace one morning with a cup of strong coffee and study the new growth placidly. Then I freeze. A lily shoot has disappeared. A whole shoot, an entire head of flowers, gone. War. Hell. And death! One snail, stupidly attached to the ruined shoot, becomes airborne and floats through the air with the greatest of ease, full of summer lilies in its minute digestive system. That night I set beer traps. By the following morning they are full.

The vengeance of a gardener is no small thing. We are armed to the teeth. With cutting implements and alcohol.

On an unusually warm day, we taste the threat of summer in its stickiness. The crabapple in front of the building has opened and its petals are falling. Up here they smell like fresh water, like hail coming, like snow, faraway, on mountains. I sip my first Kir of the terrace year — my antidote to the terrible hope of spring.

The wind turns and comes from the west, so that traffic from the Brooklyn-Queens- Expressway hums beyond the hiss and spit from the braai outside, where lamb chops are grilling, the sweet smoke from their accompanying ramps drifting indoors. Danielle, our neighbor, is perched precariously on her roof in a short skirt, tying up her rose. She has caught the gardening bug from me. She has painted her terrace red. I throw twine over to her. It is an evening for living outdoors.

I carry up my drink up to the roof and collect the paper bag that I have tossed up ahead of my ascent: sprouting potatoes, seeds, a trowel, and a knife. The sky up there is wide and blue. I collect the first, fat fava bean leaves and curling pea shoots for a succulent spring salad. The blueberry has opened tiny bell flowers, pale against the young red foliage. The white currant is in lime bloom.

{{ image(3367, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:441, “height”:300,”method”: “img”}) }}A couple of weeks later the terrace recovers from my promiscuous summer bulb planting chaos: Abyssinian gladiolus, tuberoses, and gloriosa lilies, the results of late-night online shopping. The last two are hopeful experiments. I tuck them into already-stuffed pots and say a horticultural prayer. I pick small pansies from the terrace and arrange them in an egg cup. They are followed by a succession of ranunculus and daffodils, violets, and a minute posy of lesser celandine.

Now the moon rises just south of the ailanthus tree on the next block — almost dead east. It is an opal in the evening sky.  In silhouette, the clematis stems head straight towards the first stars.

In the renewed excitement of growth I know that I am experiencing what I can barely remember by late August: an insatiable appetite for fresh greens and flowers, for young flavors and new plants; an appetite that moves me to carry those seed trays indoors and out every day, onto the table and under it, trailing morsels of compost and shredded bark.

The change of season allows us to forget, and in forgetting, we begin again.


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