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Lisa Finney was not planning on gardening three years ago, when she went to live on her charter boat Finished Business at Southwest’s Gangplank Marina.
But her front yard, a few hundred square feet of the Washington Channel surrounded by docks, was swimming with plastic bottles and bloated fish. The sight began to irk Finney, so this spring she crafted about a dozen planting beds from wood, pots, and dirt, and seeded them. Then she fastened the beds to blocks of styrofoam and floated them into the pool.
“I grew up on a farm, so all my family are horticulturists,” Finney says. Her uncle Bruce McCartney, she says, “is one of the leading horticulturists in the country. He’s been on the Victory Garden, did the landscaping in Williamsburgall kinds of things.”
The river air and direct sunlight turned out to be hospitable. The floats, which range from 2 feet square to 3 by 8 feet, currently support a range of lush vegetation, drifting slightly on wire tethers. There are hollyhocks, petunias, moonflowers, lilies, and a rose garden. Herbs grow in pots on a floating log. Her vegetable plantings include okra, tomatoes, lettuce, peanuts, peppers, eggplants, sweet potatoes, and watermelon.
The produce got off to a late start, Finney says. Despite being moated off from the usual garden pests, the plants for the first few months were constantly being pillaged by an intruder. “At first, I thought it was a duck. Or crows,” says Finney.
The culprit turned out to be a young muskrat living in the marina’s planking. At night, it would swim up, pull itself onto the floats, and devour the contents. Finney put up with the nocturnal buffet for a while, discovering that the muskrat was surprisingly tame. “It would eat from your hand,” she says. “We named it Bandit.”
The cuteness did not make up for the unpleasant reality of her garden being trashed, though. “In the morning, all that’d be left was empty pots,” she says. “We’d go out and replace [the plants] really quickly, then we’d have pretty flowers again, then the muskrat would eat them all again.” Finney put plastic deer mesh over the floats, but Bandit ate that, too.
Finally, when a prospective charter-boat client spotted the web-footed rodent rummaging in some pepper plants in broad daylight, Finney sprinted off to grab a net and two milk crates.
“I netted him, put him in [the crates], sealed him up, and took him to Buzzard Point,” she says. “Moved him down country.”
Unmolested, the plants grew to reach their current state: sprawling vines, blooming flowers, half-ripe produce, and one stalk of corn. Every day, Finney paddles around the pool in a little yellow kayak to douse the floats with river water. A diver friend recently sneaked into the marina to add an inflatable shark to the pond.
“The garden looked like shit, forever,” she says. “[N]ow that the muskrat’s gone, we’ve got beautiful flowers, got all my bird feeders and chimes.”
A steady procession of sightseers drops in from the marina’s sidewalk to oversee Finney’s work. The people mainly gawk and point, though a few come down to Finished Business to ask about booking a charter ride. “It makes people so happy to see this,” Finney says. “It’s a unique thing in D.C. to brighten Southwest.”
Whether the waterborne fruits and vegetables make it to harvest is another question. On Aug. 1, the marina’s manager, Dave Gohsman, asked Finney to clear out the garden. “We don’t allow anybody to decorate the marina,” Gohsman says.
Gohsman says he’s let the garden grow in the city-owned space because he “just wanted to see where it was going for a while.” Now, he says, other marina tenants have complained about the floats, some of which sport exposed metal flashing and algae-stained styrofoam. “It’s gotten to be a little eclectic,” he says.
Finney says she plans to remove the floats by September, in preparation for a construction project that will enlarge the docks. “We kind of knew it was temporary,” she says. She’ll winterize the plants onboard the ship, she says, and take up the issue of redoing the garden with the marina’s ownership next year.
Once the plants are gone, the space will likely go back to collecting flotsam and rotting fish.
“As long as I’m gardening,” Finney says, “I’m taking the trash out.” CP