I am always surprised and delighted when I see a little garden in an unlikely spot in the neighbourhood — behind a dilapidated steel shed, in a little alcove at an apartment building, or wrested from the woods at a seniors’ residence.
Kate Doyle, now in her fourth year of gardening, has a plot in the small yard of her downtown core home. These are tender beginnings, to grow a little food and to have an activity to share with her three- year-old daughter, Annette. Kate designed the efficient space-saving garden boxes and her husband, Eric, constructed them.
She was excited about my suggestion to grow a sunflower house with her daughter or start a fairy garden complete with twig furniture. These are the kinds of things young mothers new at sharing gardening activities with their kids need to know. She and Annette went seed shopping together so they were sure to grow things that Annette would like to eat. Tomatoes — she especially likes tiny tomatoes!
During our visit in July the beans and peas were doing well and in August the zucchini and tomatoes were producing like crazy.
Kate is wowed by the produce of Aaron Shantz of Our Food SENB who shares an office with her at the United Way of GMSENB, and she takes some inspiration from him. His mega broccoli heads and tasty farm fresh eggs are enough to make her swoon.
Kate says she’s also connecting and learning on social media. “When I asked just yesterday or the day before, ‘How are your gardens, friends? What’s happening?’ I thought I could name like four people that had gardens, but there were about 30 comments from friends that I would never have expected to have their own gardens.”
The gardening bug
There is a contagious aspect of gardening. Kate’s neighbours have taken to growing vegetables, too, and now it’s connecting the neighbourhood in unusual ways. They got together and bought a truckload of soil; they help each other weed and pick stuff; and they even take in each others laundry if it threatens rain.
“We live on a street where there are so many awesome people. The other day when we were going to get that thunderstorm I realized that my blankets were on the line and I just messaged the group, hey, can one of you go take my blankets down, I’m not going to be home until five, five-thirty? They went and did it. They even folded them for me!” I think gardening fosters this kind of trust and consideration.
Gardening fosters trust in yourself, too. Kate says, “…the more I do it, the more confident I am in my techniques and my abilities.”
Scott and Angelina’s riot of a garden
A few blocks away, Scott Carson and Angelina Iapaolo are growing a garden in a battered asphalt driveway and minuscule backyard. There is an archway back entrance to this Driveway Called Eden with a trellis covered with a bounty of tiny tomatoes — free for anyone to sample. It’s also an invitation to come in.
Plants are growing everywhere. Beans are sending out scout tendrils onto the fire escape of the adjoining building. Squash vines are climbing up the back steps to the second floor. They’re pushing the boundaries over to the neighbour’s lot. But the neighbour doesn’t mind and was inspired in his own way to start growing flowers. The bright pots and blooms on his balcony are the perfect complement to this vegetable profusion.
Scott is the main gardener and quietly goes about his work. His close-set eyes focus his attention intently on the plants. Scott is a musician (pianist) and I swear he sometimes seems to be listening to the small squeaks, hums and groans of the growing green things telling him what they need and when. Sun, water and fertility — lots of fertility. Scott fertilizes with horse manure throughout the season with great results. Scott and his partner, Angelina, are rewarded for their efforts with LOTS of food. In mid-July they already had giant heads of purple cabbage — enough to start making sauerkraut. In August, it was salsa making season with a profusion of tomatoes. September yielded zucchini as big as Scott’s forearm.
Angelina is the networker and the one who gives voice to what they are doing here with their amazing garden. She is grateful that the landlord, the owner of a fast food joint next door, lets them create this jungle of food. But I clearly see that it is the landlord that should be grateful. The garden adds to the beauty and the safety of the property and the neighbourhood that otherwise would just be decaying old houses with peeling paint and sagging porches.
Scott says gardening, ”…also elevates the energy of the area it is in.”
I can imagine this garden as a set for a sci-fi movie. The plants seem innocent enough but they grow like crazy at night when no one can see them — their conspiratorial aim: overgrow everything. Make it green. Make it beautiful.
Angelina is the singer of the duo. I envision her and Scott making music in the garden — from the garden — intuiting the voices of plants.
The will to garden
Gardening is hard work and takes commitment. So why do people do it? Beginning gardeners are usually inspired by someone else. The desire to eat better, be more self-sufficient, and also save money are motivations for sure. Angelina says of their garden, “I think its setting, its inception, its bounty have shown people that we are like them, without much, but we made this amazing thing happen on pavement, in a rental, in a shady neighbourhood. People are growing stuff all over now and feeling so great about taking care of themselves. We are no longer an oddity. Gardening to feed ourselves is a purposeful lifestyle choice.”
She also sees their vegetable growing project as a kind of template for action. Angelina plans to share her knowhow. “When I get it all down pat I want to help replicate it for others.”
Me, Elaine, the gardener
My grandparents introduced me to gardening. I remember being five years old and planting onion sets with them in the spring. Now, I am an avid and fairly successful gardener both at home and at the Boys and Girls Club of Moncton, where I am coordinating a gardening project, completing the circle and working with children. My grandmother grew a lot of tomatoes and I remember the fruits heavy on the vines and the green tomato chow and dill pickles she would make in fall. Something that I thought was so simple and ordinary at the time now comes across as a beautiful memory and profound lesson.
This gardening thread was picked up again years later when I was in my twenties. I started a garden when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the backyard of a house we were renting. We had just read Plowman’s Folly, a book about how the practice of plowing destroys the structure and micro-organisms in the soil. They encouraged disc harrowing to prepare the soil instead. We did the next best thing, or so we thought.
We tied some cinder blocks to a garden rake and scratched away at the sod. When we dug in to plant, we discovered that someone must have worked on cars back there because we unearthed old spark plugs, distributor caps, hunks of rubber, tempered glass and shards of metal. (They made cars out of steel back in those days.) Probably the soil was soaked with oil and gasoline too because nothing much grew except some beans, but that small success was enough to keep going next year and the next. With gardening, even a small reward keeps you hooked. That’s part of its magic.
The thing about gardening is that right away you have to pay attention, you have to observe and ask questions and find solutions. Why did this plant do well and not the others? You have to look for the subtleties.
The way of the garden
In my backyard garden now, the beets are doing well, probably because I added Borax to the soil. (Beets like boron and our soil here lacks it.) It was hard to germinate peas, beans and carrots this spring, probably because it was cold and wet in May and early June and I tend to plant early.
Tomatoes are doing OK but not as well as last year. I should have rotated their position to a new bed. Peppers, I have aplenty. Lots of sun!
I have zucchini but no cucumbers yet because they are too shaded, but I did rotate their position. Were there no bees to pollinate them? You see how this works?
An avid gardener likes to grow more and more every year. And they like to take on challenges, like growing melons or exotic, finicky vegetables. This year my watermelon only grew big enough for a Barbie doll picnic!
Raindrops on turnip leaves
I’m going outside now to listen to the rain hit the leaves in the turnip patch and to see if the ears of corn have plumped up. You see, it’s like this. You think about it more and more and find yourself in the garden at odd hours, taking care of it. In the fall it might be a cool starry night and you’re wondering if it’s going to frost and you don’t want the garden to be done for another year, yet. And the things that you lavish attention on and take care of, you grow to love.
The ultimate reward of course is eating. Never before has food tasted so good. My husband, Archie, and I roast up pans of fresh vegetables from the garden in olive oil and lemon juice and eat them with torn off hunks of baguette. Gardening makes life good. It makes you realize that it’s the simple things that are so very, very good. And you want to keep it all coming — next year and the next and the next.