My earliest childhood memory is of sitting in a circle of peas in my parents’ backyard garden. The memory is bright, leafy green shot through with sunshine — somehow overexposed, like real memories often are. Even now, I can still feel the lingering warmth of that summertime encirclement.
Almost 25 years later, I’m finding my way back to that garden. It started last summer, when, with the determined change that follows a break-up, I decided I would grow things. Lacking a garden and inspired by Gayla Trail, I assembled some pots, a few seeds and seedlings, and I let the planting begin. (I wrote a post about it, finally understanding Thoreau’s wonder at growing beans.) When those first sprouts emerged, I felt a sense of awe at this miraculous yet mundane event unfurling before me. It was a feeling long forgotten, lost sometime after that pea circle and my sickly yogourt cup bean plant in my early primary days.
My budding fascination was unexpectedly nourished by my father, who, until recently, had taken a gardening hiatus similar to my own. But in the last few years, he has picked up his spade once more, and bragged about his yield so much that last summer I insisted he fork over some of his bounty. He brought a green bag overflowing with potatoes, peppers, beets, beans, and one other thing that shocked us both: a cantaloupe. My dad cradled it in both hands, and looked from it to me with an almost childish grin, “Can you believe it?” he asked. “A melon!” I couldn’t. I didn’t even know how melons grew, let alone that they were things that could be grown by local amateurs.
At the same time, my friend Steph was experiencing a similar gardening renaissance. The house that she lives in (that I now am fortunate to share), provided a rare urban blessing, especially for renters: a large backyard that was hers to do with as she pleased. There was already a garden there, partially used by Vito, the elderly man next door who grew tomatoes and beans in our garden in exchange for tending our grass. His own backyard had also been pressed into service, despite it being mostly concrete — he grew grapes over his back patio that would be turned into wine, tended raised beds of his own and had his own backyard greenhouse. He often looked on as Steph planted her seedlings and weeded her beds, and he’d nod approvingly, “You’re working the land,” he say, pleased to see the younger generation carrying on what he’d worried was becoming a lost skill. He’d dispense the occasional tip on planting (“No, no. Too close. You don’t put two babies in one cradle!”) and probably watered Steph’s crops from time to time. By the end of the summer, the cherry tomatoes plants exploded like popcorn, cucumber vines curled through the garden, and the lettuce and broccoli had grown to a prodigious size. Sadly, Vito passed away last fall, and Steph lost her gardening mentor, but this year as we worked the land in our new, expanded garden, we referred often to Vito’s bits of wisdom. No doubt he’d be pleased.
After last year’s first, wobbling steps, I decided to step things up this year. And deep in the doldrums of February, I found refuge in gardening-type books. I revisited an old favourite, Gayla Trail‘s Grow Great Grub, still the best book I’ve found for urban gardening, and one I’ve recommended extensively (to all of Toronto in fact!). Then highlighter in hand like an eager pupil, I went deeper with Small Plot, High-Yield Gardening, a book that goes into considerable detail on each plant and best growing practices, and though the volume of information is daunting, especially when you haven’t yet put spade to soil, I was still fascinated, and in the midst of gardening, found that detail invaluable. I learned about soil nutrients and plant interaction, growing seasons and crop rotation. Still insatiable, I picked up The 100-Mile Diet, which was not a manifesto as I expected, but rather a relatable account of an ambitious experiment and a diary of rekindling and old relationship — with our food. James and Alisa’s pioneer resourcefulness was inspiring too, and that led me to The City Homesteader, which goes behind gardens to foraging, preserving, and raising livestock in small spaces (more on this one later). On the recommendation of my eco-warrior friend Emily, I also have Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle waiting patiently in the wings.
It occurs to me that in this day and age, it may be somewhat rare to seek this kind of practical knowledge from books first and foremost. There are tons of gardening websites, instructive YouTube videos, blogs, and so on, but I think computer-based forays would have been much less satisfying. It would have felt like work, whereas this felt like leisurely explorations, strolling and taking in the sights rather than bouncing place to place. The authors, with their consistent voices and approaches, also came to be reliable advisers, the closest thing to a mentor you can get from the page. And with this return to the land, to old practices and techniques, books felt like the appropriate tools. Each morning, loathe to leave the warmth of my bed for the cold darkness of my apartment in the pre-work hours, I’d huddle with coffee, pouring over these volumes. I’m pretty sure they were as good as one of those fake sun lights to fight depression.
And now come spring? The garden’s going even better than I could have dreamed in those dark days of February. Every time a new plant pokes through the soil, I’m as excited as the first time — the first time this season, the first time I sat amongst those peas as a child. I watch the garden with something like the fascination new parents feel for their newborns. I’m thrilled when someone brings me seeds, or a violet transplant from their backyard, and I think the best courtship gift I’ve ever gotten was a new dirt rake from my current gentleman caller. I gravitate toward gardening centres like bees to blossoms. I’m assembling my own little gardening library. And I love knowing that I’m only just getting started — that there will always be more to learn.
Vito’s son gave us some carrot seedlings of his father’s, and I thought it a pretty touching gesture, but also a nice symbolic one. Because even as I’m growing, learning, moving forward, it’s nice to know that this whole project is also a return — to those who went before, to working the land, to book-learning, and to reclaiming some of that childhood joy.