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One passion, two gardens, and a dilemma

When people ask about my garden, I correct them. "Gardens," I say. "I have two." "You must really like to garden," they say. Or, sometimes, "That seems excessive."

For my part, I like to respond that I am torn between two gardens. Melodramatic, perhaps, but true.

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For nine years, I was faithful to a single garden – a plot at the local community garden, about a mile from my apartment.

I started out with two friends and two plots, each 20 by 20 feet. My friends stopped gardening after the first few years, so then it was me and the two plots.

Next, my boyfriend started gardening with me, and the two plots turned into four. Then he got four of his own across the way. Last summer, his watermelons were on my side and my butternut squash was on his. We had tomatoes both places and shared the peas and the raspberries. It was a veritable gardening enterprise.

As a novice gardener, I found that the community garden was a fabulous place to learn. I could wander around and look at other people's plots, seeing how far apart they planted their lettuce or carrots.

I could discover flowers I didn't know I wanted to grow until they were there in front of me. And I became the recipient of many cuttings and volunteers. The heliopsis are from Pat, the phlox from Frances. The lilies were left by friends who had the plot before me. These plants make me feel that my garden is part of a community, just as I am.

And there is no question that I feel part of a community there. At a community garden, you are never alone – and that is part of the joy. There is always someone around to ask even the simplest question.

After a few years, I was delighted to realize that I was answering questions as well as asking them. When I run into garden friends at the grocery store, we talk about mulch and the dreaded woodchuck.

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Of course, gardening in a public place can backfire. I spent one summer flirting with a charming poet in a neighboring plot and the next summer trying to avoid him. To that end, I planted some Siberian asters, supposed to grow more than six feet tall, to serve as a "poet shield." The poet left the garden the next summer, but the asters have monopolized one edge of my plot ever since, and I think of him whenever I thin them in the spring.

Even as my life has taken various turns, my devotion to my community garden hasn't waned. I've left jobs and started new ones, lost friends and gained others. I've finished a novel and lived in another country, and all the while, my garden has remained a constant.

And then, something happened: I bought a house. It's a house with nearly an acre of land, a house with a large garden already dug, in addition to beds all the way around the house and beside a stone wall. I have moved to a gardener's dream home – except that I already have a garden.

It's a dilemma: On the one hand, my community garden has fabulous soil, well- established perennials, and the company of other like-minded folks.

On the other hand, I have garden space galore right outside my door. I can actually think about putting in an asparagus bed. I have inherited rhubarb and strawberries, new perennials, hydrangeas, and a lilac bush.

But my house is on the side of a mountain, and the soil runs to clay. The garden is simultaneously established and nascent. I am living with someone else's decisions – some haphazard, some not.

Which brings me back to feeling torn between two gardens. Everyone is surprised that I am even attempting to garden two places. "But you have your own garden now," they say. "You don't need to go to the community garden."

"That was my first garden," I reply. "I can't just ditch it. I have perennials and poppies and really good compost."

But at my house, I have endless possibilities and the opportunity to put my stamp onto it, of gardening not just in a 40-by-40-foot square, but in this particular place I loved on first sight and am now getting to know. It is a landscape I am learning, slowly and with pleasure.

A wise friend didn't question me when I told her what I was doing. "Until the garden at your house feels as much your garden as the community garden does, you'll probably want to keep both," she said.

So, for now, I am. I can rationalize it if I need to: The mosquitoes are bad at the house, so I can work at the community garden in the evenings. The community garden is right next to the trails where I like to walk.

Mostly, though, I don't want to have to rationalize or justify. I know that I won't always want to drive 10 minutes from my house to the community garden. I know that, over time, I might be able to nourish the soil at the house enough so that it is equally productive. Right now, I delight at having salad greens and basil just a few steps from my kitchen door, and maybe in a few years, I will want all of my tomatoes and peas there as well.

That time hasn't come yet. And as I slowly learn about the garden and land I gained with my house, I will still tend to the garden that taught me to love gardens in the first place.