My Chaos Garden - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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My Chaos Garden

Sometimes, when I’m mindlessly scrolling on the internet, a certain genre of gardening videos makes its targeted approach.

What follows are scenes from a flower-laden utopia, where no one has dirt underneath their very nice nails. The backyards are generously stuffed with things like cucamelons. The cupboards are stocked with preserves. The gardeners all seem to have baskets, which they fill to the brim with that homegrown abundance. Where did they get these baskets?

My smartphone knows that I am a gardener in Brooklyn, but it doesn’t know what kind of gardener I am. My garden is abundant, but it has a distinctly different vibe. I used to think gardening was about exerting control over one’s little domain—the arranged beds, the careful pruning. But my experience has been the opposite.

A blurry woman with dark hair looks down at the camera from an upside-down angle while a yellow sunflower and other greenery appears above her head.
The author in her garden. Photo by Hannah Kingsley-Ma.

Here is my garden, laid out like an illustrated children’s book: seven to nine feral cats who hate my guts and crap in my raised beds, the forgotten tiki torches and faded plastic parrots of former tenants gone by, the carcasses of stomped spotted lanternflies littering the speckled dirt like a party decoration gone wrong. A mysterious lone daffodil in spring, an underground message in a bottle from a fellow gardener in a past life.

My tomatoes are small and hard-hearted. My peas are positively crispy. I recently fed a homegrown green bell pepper to a friend; she smiled politely and told me it tasted like poison. All that grows in great plentitude is kale, which is devastating, because it means I must eat kale. I egged on the world’s saddest red cabbage for months, terrified of the day of reckoning when I might have to cook and consume it.

It should go without saying I have no idea what I am doing. I’m a city kid, with no green thumb in sight. My marching orders came unexpectedly, through the mercurial providence of the housing market: I found a New York City rental that was both affordable and had outdoor space.

I feel lucky to have a garden, and one that reminds me of the city I love. After all, my garden isn’t wilderness. It’s an improbable stretch of randomness, where all sorts of living things collide.

A large purplish-blue cabbage with wide leaves next to a potted plant in a tan pot.
The author’s cabbage. Photo by Hannah Kingsley-Ma.

As with many pressing dilemmas in my life (does this look infected, should I go to grad school), I crowd-sourced the answers to my gardening questions. My friends Marian and Alia showed me how they purchased wildflower seeds by the handful and scattered them to the wind.

My friend Emma surveyed my backyard with an appraiser’s eye, noting where the sun lingered and the shade clung. My next-door neighbors, two phenomenal gardeners, sometimes called to me from their upstairs window if they saw me about to tug a weed that was actually an emerging sunflower stalk.

To my shock, the wildflowers spread, and with them came the bees and butterflies, just as the packet promised (I opted for the pollinator’s mix; it sounded magnanimous). The sunflowers grew. In fact, they grew and grew and grew, until they drooped under the enormous weight of their own preening crowns.

My jalapeños slowly ballooned, showing off delicate white stretch marks. I grew Thai basil. I grew zinnias. I grew fava beans. I grew freckles lettuce. I attempted to grow a cantaloupe. That was a bridge too far.

A city garden, I found, is filled with surprise: the winter bulbs emerging through the broken glass-studded dirt near the periphery of the chain link fence. The sound of my neighbors’ barbecues drifting through the hamburger-scented sky. The time a cat snuck through my apartment window without me noticing until it exploded out of my bathroom at 11 p.m. The occasionally untenable chaos of all that life.

A person's shadow forms above a cluster of yellow, red, and purple flowers of different heights and sizes.
Flowers blooming in the summer. Photo by Hannah Kingsley-Ma.

I love my garden with the bewildered love of a new parent. I did not know I was capable of this kind of love. I didn’t know I had it in me to have a hobby. My favorite activities are things like lying down and spending money. It turns out when you have a garden you do those things, too. But you also do other, more rewarding things.

There is a story that I think of as the foundational text for my time as a city gardener. My first apartment upon moving here was on a block that contained an industrial bread factory, a lobster farm, a funeral home, an abandoned church, and an empty lot that very loud trucks liked to park in during the darkest, most foul hours of the night.

Our two-story apartment building abutted this empty lot. My downstairs neighbors had a big pumpkin-decorating party every October. One year, in a moment of drunken inspiration, one of the guests decided to chuck some of the pumpkins up over the divide to see who could launch theirs the farthest.

A year later, my neighbors looked out their window and saw a strange sight: a newly visible pumpkin patch in that same abandoned lot, sprung from those few exploded pumpkins. I love to imagine them in that moment: their dumbstruck recognition.

I have experienced the power of that feeling, like when I thought I had planted Shasta daisies from seeds I bought at the corner dollar store, only to discover I had grown instead a handful of ruddy radishes. Or the persistence of that lone daffodil, a remnant of a quiet, unknowable past. 

Time, as reliable as it is unruly. I watch it pass from my window when I’m writing. Then I go outside and inspect what else is new.

Hannah Kingsley-Ma is a writer, radio producer, and former bookseller in Brooklyn.

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Image, top of page: Hannah Kingsley-Ma