All In the Family


Yesterday I spent eleven hours helping my brother Jay become a container gardener. The original plan was to show up with a few supplies, have lunch, and spend two hours tops setting up. In and out. Back to work by 2pm.

Or not.

It was just supposed to be two large containers. I didn’t want to overwhelm him. In fact I often warn new gardeners to start out slow — especially container gardeners since the demands are higher. So what I did was ignore my own advice and give over rational thinking to his enthusiasm and my own long-awaited dream of having a gardening sibling.

My brother has grown the odd houseplant in the past, many of which I have saved from a slow road to certain death. Like the wiry dracena he left for dead which I saved by cutting the top off and starting again. When he moved the last time he decided he wanted it back, a request I found interesting but didn’t really mind given that I had kept it more out of mercy than anything else. I find it difficult to turn my back on a plant in need, a personality quirk that at times makes me the crazy cat lady of the plant world. When I showed up to his apartment yesterday morning, that same dracena was sitting in an appropriately-sized pot with about an inch and a half of soil in the bottom. Not exactly a sight that says he is ready to take more on. In all fairness he also had a large palm that looked pretty good. But still.

During lunch we discussed what he might like to grow. I had brought along a determinate tomato, a large oregano, dill, and some mint from my own stash because he had expressed an interest in growing herbs. I knew he loved tomatoes and I thought he could handle ‘Czech’s Bush’ which is a really hardy little plant that produces medium-sized fruit. After lunch we stopped at a few local stands that carried plants picking up an assortment of herbs including: tarragon (I got one for myself too), sage (despite the fact that I grow enough to feed the millions), rosemary (yep I have a giant one of them, too), purple basil, garlic chives, and silver thyme. I could have supplied the last two from my own stash had I known. After dropping the plants off we headed into China Town where I knew we could get some small stakes for the tomato. I wanted to pick a few up for myself as well. He decided he wanted a hot pepper even though I grow far more hot peppers then Davin can eat (I can’t really eat hot peppers, I just like growing them). I usually give a bunch away at the end of the season.

Now, you’d think finding hot pepper plants would be an easy task in China Town. Like most parts of the city I am familiar with the little stands in the area and the plants they carry. We headed over to the section where all the plant stands are but the only pepper plants we found were aphid infested. Another on the way back also sold aphid infested plants. Eventually, we ended up purchasing a larger transplant of unknown variety from an elderly woman selling Thai chilies and shungiku from atop a stool set up on the corner. We paid too much for it, but at least it wasn’t aphid infested.

When we got back we got to the task of cleaning out the old pots that had been left there and planting everything up in fresh soil. I had brought the bag of soil from home. I could only carry one which proved to be an inadequate amount given that we now had enough plants for two more containers than previously calculated. My brother also wanted to re-pot his prized palm tree.

Quest for Soil

After picking up some caffeinated fuel we hoped on the streetcar headed to an area that seemed fail-proof. We could get there and back quickly, it was pretty direct and I knew there were at least three stores in the area selling potting soil. I like to ensure good odds. The first store with the best soil was sold out. They were also sold out of vermicompost and most soil amenders which I had been hoping to get for him. More items I could have brought from home had I had more help getting things from my place. Worse still, we added to the collection when my brother decided he wanted a beautiful ‘Chinese Five Color’ hot pepper and a Black Peppermint.

So to tally it up, we’ve now got more plants and no soil.

Next we tried to get him a watering can with no luck. The cans at the local hardware store were horrible and plastic. He decided to hold out for something nicer. Then we hit two more stores looking for soil, and while both stores had some in stock they were no good. I do not cheap out on potting soil. Over time I have developed a way of judging the quality of potting soil based on weight. I have used enough brands and picked up enough bags of soil in my gardening life to know what good potting soil weighs when it has the right ingredient proportions. If it weighs too much it has too much compost (sometimes fillers) and will compact in the pot. If it weighs too little it has no nutritional matter whatsoever and is what I call “popcorn soil.” Both brands weighed a ton in proportion to the size of their bags. They would not do.

And so we hopped on the subway, this time hoping to hit another store that I was only “pretty sure” carried a soil brand that I liked. We could have gone another route to a store I KNEW carried that brand but it was even further out of the way and we were now approaching 5pm. Once there we first went into the mall hoping to find a watering can. There were cans but they were either too expensive or had country-style heart motifs embossed into the metal — not exactly my brother’s style. I picked up a chocolate brown metal bin for myself that was later sacrificed to my brother (he’s paying me back for this one) when we discovered that we were far short on containers. We did find the soil, not exactly the one I wanted but good enough to meet my standards. Of course my brother found more plants he had to have. We picked up ‘Red Sails’ lettuce although they were a little withered looking, more basil (he HAD to have a green variety too) and a tuberous begonia.

A cab ride back with three more bags of soil that had to be carried up three flights of stairs, and a few hours of potting, cleaning, organizing and care instruction and we were finally done. As you can see from the photos some plants were left un-potted or inadequately potted because we ran out. My brother lives in an area where he should be able to score good junk finds to turn into containers and I impressed upon him the importance of putting that on project status if the basil is going to live past next Tuesday. Basil plants will not be as forgiving as the dracena.


Despite having blown an entire day and a fistful of dollars (did I mention I was treating and am now officially covered off for all birthdays and holidays until 2010) I am excited about the possibility of finally turning my brother over to the dark side. I told him I’m like one of those dealers they warn the kids about doling out free drugs until the freebies stop and the kids are hooked, possibly for life. Except the “drugs” are plants and the lifelong addiction is growing them.

I can only hope.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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15 thoughts on “All In the Family

  1. I had to laugh at this – I too am a container garden newbie and lately I’ve been prone to buying more plants than I have containers for. Also, I’ve been getting most of my containers from thrift stores and now balk at paying anything over $2.50 for a pot!

    I’ve had trouble finding soil as well. I really like the Nature Mix brand (it contains peat moss but at least it claims to be responsibly harvested…) but I can only ever find the Tropical mix, Cactus mix and African Violet mix. Where’s the all-purpose mix in Toronto?? Is there even a huge difference??

  2. Gorgeous!! Although it sounds like an exhausting day! Lol just reading it made me tired. But well worth all your energy and running about.

  3. KT: Try Loblaws. I know the Dupont/Christie location definitely has the container mix (blue bag). Incidentally that is the brand I favour as well. Not because I think it is the best (I’ve used better for various reasons) but because there has been a real drought of good soils in Toronto and that is the best I have found.

  4. The dark side – hee hee! Thinking about this post and your last one on the chive wedding bouquet, my sister is co-hosting my brother and sis-in-law’s baby shower and asked me for ideas for prizes for the games (don’t get me started – why the need for games? Why?!!!). I suggested potting up some flowers and decorating the pots. Then I thought the shower ladies might not like colors I chose, so I’m doing herbs – they match everything and are useful – ha!

    Do you anticipate having to babysit your brother’s plants?

  5. I too have made the move to dark side. I think you know when you are on that side when you wake up in the middle of the night because you hear the rain coming down and are afraid it is going to turn to snow, so you run outside at 1:30am to cover everything up. Beets, lettuce, Spinach, scallions, radish, carrots and peas are all doing great. No surprise, cold hardy plants, that can withstand a snow storm on June 11th (yes that’s right, a snowstorm yesterday!). But my beans and cukes not doing well, even though still inside. My 16 tomato plants (yes I know a little over board), are doing ok, but I don’t expect them to each produce much because of the short growing season and the weather (summer is never coming to Colorado). Basil…I can’t grow it for the life of me.

  6. This reminds me of my own recent conversion of a former soil-phobe into a full-on farmer. I was just going to help him plant a small watermelon patch (his love of watermelon borders on mania), but we got excited and dug the bed way to early to plant watermelons. So we put in some lettuce, strwaberries, peas, broccoli… and a few weeks passed and it still wasn’t hot enough, so in went the beans, and peppers…tomatoes,basil,herbs… you get the idea. By the time it was hot enough for the melons we had to dig a whole new patch!

  7. I love this post! I am known to try to convert family members into “gardeners”….I have lots of containers and try to share the wealth when I have too much.

    Great job on the garden! Love it!

    PS…discovered your blog months ago when I was starting my tomato plants in pots!

  8. Great story. Yes, the darkside… I just set my own brother up with two of my extra giant tomato seedlings. A two-hour plan also somehow morphed into 5 or 6 hours, plus two meals. While at the garden center picking up stakes, etc, he just HAD to have this succulent, that succulent, and on and on. Too cute. I love spreading the sickness, I mean enthusiasm, to others.

  9. Dana: You are correct, both times.

    I went back to the store yesterday to replace the brown container I sacrificed to him and they had sold out!!

  10. looks like you guys are off to a good start – i love it when siblings get along :)

    i didn’t know container gardening was harder – i thought the opposite – but i am a totally new gardener. love your blog :)

  11. Lucky: Harder isn’t really the right word. It’s more demanding in that containers dry out quickly and need to be watered more often than in-ground gardens. But you control the soil, pests are fewer, and you can move the plants around so in those ways it is actually “easier.” I think in-ground gardens are more intimidating to new gardeners because there is a patch of land that needs to be converted. With a container you just pop the plant in and call it a day.

  12. What a nice read and what a nice treat to peek into the lives of urban gardeners.

    I used to be a regular reader of your site when I lived in T.O. (2000 – 2005) and struggled to transform a long patch of dirt into a garden. In that time, I was inspired by your site and the information you provided and did pretty well to nurture a nice garden.

    Fast-forward to the present, I’m living in Iringa, Tanzania (look it up!) and dealing with a whole new set of challenges to having a beautiful garden. Plenty of space…constant rain for 6 months of the year…nothing but sunshine for 6 months during the dry season, not to mention that the water bill gets very high during this time…vervet monkeys that make off with my crop…land along the side of the hill that is prone to washing away during the rains…lots of unusual pests…plants that can take over the entire garden in no time at all…etc…

    Now with the dry season in full swing (read: winter) I’m looking into planting food that can tolerate the cold wind at night, the hot sun during the day and very little water.

    Any ideas? Thanks.

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