Me, Sophie, and Granddaughter Mirabella in the garden
I was out picking peas in the garden one morning a few days ago when I started to think about how much gardening tells and potentially teaches us about life. That’s if we’re ready, willing and able to listen, of course.
You take peas, for example. Still a staple of the home garden, and the first to plant as soon as the ground can be worked in early spring, they’re supposed to be easy to grow, even fool-proof, I’ve heard it said.
But even as I bang out those words on my long-suffering, computer keyboard, memory calls up the image of rows of peas I planted here in my little corner of Hope Ness a few years ago. Big portions of those six labour intensive rows failed to germinate in the hard, clay-loam soil. And yet, there they are now, just two rows planted in that same ground a few, rotational years later doing just fine, and far more productive. I must have learned something, even in my dotage.
That other was a dry , unusually warm spring, as I recall, whereas this past spring was anything but; even now, just past the middle of July, the temperature is struggling to get past 30 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, this season I don’t think we’ve gone more than two or three days at a stretch without rain.
Last summer I had sweet corn ready to pick by the middle of August. This year I’ll be lucky to have any by Labor Day.
I figure the copious moisture has kept the surface of the clay-loam soil from being baked into the usual hard-pan weeks ago, to the benefit of my pea crop.
Judging from my back field here that’s still in grass, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better hay crop. But no doubt local livestock farmers are having a frustrating time getting it off between the rainy days.
I reached for yet another snow-pea pod, judged it in a nanosecond of time, more or less, to be not yet ready for picking, and moved on. By the time I got to the end of the first row in a few minutes I had several baskets full. I thought with a smile if I had my early-teen granddaughters up from the city helping me, I’d be hearing a lot of that inevitable question: “Is this one big enough, Grandpa?” .
I keep hoping that gardening gene that has bloomed in the past so wonderfully on the maternal side of our family will light up again for one of my many grandchildren, and maybe even lead to a career choice. (My great grandfather Thomas Thompson was a master gardener; his brother, my great uncle, Richard Thompson, was the head gardener for many years at Toronto’s fabled Casa Loma.) Beside, I’m getting old and I’d like to think someone will carry on.
Far be it from me to pressure, or worse, force anyone. In the best of all possible words, gardening should be a joyful experience. Never think for one moment that doesn’t make a difference to the plants.
I recall hearing a man make a disparaging comment years ago at a local planning meeting about gardening being “woman’s work,” as if its value was little compared with the work normally done by men. It was a foolish comment that said as much about an attitude toward the value of women and the work they did at one time, as it did about gardening.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as that man himself, who happened to be a farmer and a member of a local township council, should have known. He likely sat down at his own table often enough to eat a hearty meal largely grown in the garden, cooked, and preserved by the women of his house.
A wise man – and I’m sure there were many of them – would have understood the survival and success of the pioneer homestead and the family farm was just that, a “family” affair that valued and celebrated everyone’s contribution in many ways to the healthy spirit of the home.
The living room of the 125-year-old farmhouse that’s my home now, still gives pride of place to the upright piano, a made-in-Toronto Bessemer, the woman of the house played to bring the pleasure and consolation of music to her family. Or so she hoped.
I recently framed a couple of her paintings, one of the moon shining down on Georgian Bay, the other of the family’s two beloved work horses.
Her beautiful, perennial garden – now very much missing her tender, loving care – was her pride and joy. She knew in her heart every home needed flowers to keep spirits up.
Gardening is a lot of work, to be sure. I imagine she must have been introduced to her parental family garden gently and lovingly by one or both parents, and grew into gardening with love.
Since I took up gardening more than 20 years ago I’ve found it very rewarding, not so much financially, as mentally and physically. I have found the work involved with gardening to be the perfect exercise to keep my back muscles in condition to compensate for three herniated disks.
Meanwhile, gardening is a continuous, and often quite challenging and surprisingly complex learning experience. It’s a lot like life in that regard: So many foundational factors to maintain in good condition, so many challenges to face and carefully overcome, so much planning ahead with a need to be realistic about one’s energies and abilities, while still daring to dream and try new things.
And then comes a wonderful, proud moment – it often takes you by surprise – that crown’s your achievement: a particular beautiful basket of newly-picked beans, the first-picked bite of your own sweet corn.
Back in the days when Canada was a much more agrarian society, young and old had far more opportunity to make that life and spirit-nourishing connection with the land.
If you happen to live in the big city and feel a notion to go for a drive in the countryside, come my way. I’ll be glad to show you what you’ve been missing and perhaps in your heart of hearts longing to awaken a dormant need to garden. I recommend it for anyone, young and old.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in July, 2017