The Working Waterfront

Gardening as a way of putting down community roots

Large tin cistern is the missing piece for our home garden

Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2018-08-22
Last Modified 2018-08-22

Eight years ago, as a symbol of our intention to stay on North Haven indefinitely, I bought apple trees and asparagus crowns for Bill as a Chanukah present. I gave him a drawing of the plants then, and in April, a package arrived from Fedco. Two tiny whips with root-balls attached and a 12-pack of octopus-like roots sat on the porch until the ground was soft enough to work.

This was it, I thought. Now we can never leave.

We’re still here, of course, and the apple trees are doing great. But within a few years of growing asparagus some asparagus beetles caught wind of the crop and decimated it. I put strawberries in, and the mice got them (or possibly my dog). A tiny sprig of oregano spread into my entire herb garden and began taking over the asparagus patch as well. 

It was time for a change.

As sometimes happens, I set an intention to the universe for a solution for this weedy, depressing plot, and one came about quickly. Within a day of my decision to begin anew, with herbs rescued from my oregano patch, new plants, and a strawberry container, the North Haven Historical Society posted a photo of a giant tin cistern on its Facebook page. It had been pulled from the Beverage farm, possibly never used, and would make a perfect raised bed for my troublesome garden. Although I hated disappointing other prospective cistern gardeners, I was glad when my fast typing claimed it first.

The process of turning this 9-foot by 4-foot by 2-foot ancient behemoth into a functional herb and strawberry garden drew connections between friends and community members. I cleared the bed with Penrose’s somewhat begrudging help, and we recruited a friend to load the cistern onto the bed of Bill’s truck.

Some of the herb plants came from a sale to benefit Penrose’s preschool, started by friends on island, and a rosemary plant appeared on my porch as a thank you for a conversation I’d had earlier that week.

The island greenhouse has a pile of old dirt that anyone can dig in, and that and the remnants of a short wall of basalt chunks Bill and I had built behind the asparagus become the drainage and fill for most of the cistern. The last of the 72 cubic feet were filled with purchased top soil and compost.

Bill and I, with friends and community members, have collaborated on a lot of projects around the house, but since our most important collaboration (Penrose, if that was too vague), it’s been more challenging to find the time. In fact, this project was progressing so quickly because Bill’s mom was in town. But as we rolled the cistern, balanced precariously on a garden cart into position, chucked chunks of rotten rock into the bottom, shoveled dirt out of the truck bed, and tore open bags of top soil and compost, I remembered the satisfying feeling of shared physical labor rewarded with beauty. 

A strawberry container with 12 plants peeking out of openings in the terra cotta went into the center of the filled cistern. The rosemary is to the left, slightly shaded by a nearby evergreen. A row of basil is in the place of honor in the front, with parsley and dill upstage. A new thyme plant keeps company with sage and chives rescued from the oregano, and I filled the ends with nasturtium seeds. In theory, they’ll cascade over the sides. Yarrow and catmint went into the ground in front of the cistern to hopefully fill in and mask some of the rusted metal staves.

I get a little thrill every time I look out a window and catch sight of the cistern planter. It’s a huge improvement over the sad former asparagus and strawberry garden. But better still, it represents a connection between North Haven’s history and present, and results of hard work done together.

Courtney Naliboff lives, teaches, and writes on North Haven.