Gardening Lessons My Grandmother Taught Me (Unintentionally)


I wrote this piece back in February for The Guardian UK, and am now posting it here in its entirety as promised. You can read my preface to it here.


My gardener’s story is atypical. There were no childhood summers frolicking in the garden of a rosy-cheeked matriarch eager to pass on a passion for growing things; however, there was, in fact, a grandmother — a woman who for better or worse certainly left an impression. A woman who taught me about gardening without meaning to, possibly even in spite of herself.

I had a precarious relationship with my maternal grandmother, Scylla Trail. There were some small moments of affection but for the most part I would describe our relationship as confusing. There are complicated issues here, problems too intricate to properly address in a short gardening article. It would take a dissertation to unravel the complex recipe of class, race, sociopolitical, and personal psychology that forged the logic of our relationship. I bring it up only as a way to make it clear that while my grandmother was a gardener of sorts and helped shape who I am as a gardener today, what existed between us was not an intentional passing of the gardening torch from one generation to the next.

And yet, while the lessons Scylla taught me may have been articulated in a passive way, they are still meaningful.

This is the only photo I have of my grandmother and I together. I don’t know where it was taken or why there is a black nanny doll in the background. Ugh. I think I am somewhere between 3 and 4 years old here. That would make Scylla approximately 65.

I don’t know what growing plants meant to my grandmother — she never spoke of it. I was born around the time Scylla moved to Canada, riding the wave of newly changed immigration laws that supported an influx of black West Indians intended to work as laborers and domestic servants. The woman I knew lived alone in a single occupant apartment in a senior’s hi-rise. Scylla frequently babysat my brother and I while we were growing up and we clocked a lot of overnighters there.

Her small apartment was well appointed for an elderly woman with an aggressive sense of religion, but not exactly hospitable to kids. There were religious plaques and photos of a white Jesus on every wall, a coffee table piled with houseplants, a compact stereo system that housed an assortment of religious albums, and piles of pamphlets illustrated with the toothy grins of popular televangelists (tucked underneath the couch cushions). There were no toys or games and we were only allowed to watch back-to-back broadcasts of The 700 Club, although we did find ways to turn the rocking chairs into racehorses and the small balcony served as a good place to launch bits and bobs from. I got some of my start as a gardener by turning my attentions to her houseplants in an effort to break up the boredom between hours of religious programming, bible reading, and praying for sinners (us). I killed time pruning back dead leaves and plucking them from pots, dusting foliage, and watering. One of my favorite memories of Scylla’s apartment was the way she liked to arrange her houseplants into an Xmas tree shape during the Holidays — a pyramid of assorted houseplants that were decorated in lieu of an actual tree. As a kid I thought it was completely mad (it was) but as an adult I can appreciate Scylla’s ingenuity, brilliance, and utter disregard for Canadian social norms.

The first thing my grandmother taught me (unintentionally) about gardening was how to make something out of nothing.

One day, while playing on the small balcony, I noticed a plant with tiny blue flowers growing in a recycled, econo-sized laundry soap bucket. When I went in to ask my grandmother what it was, she answered (like it was the most mundane thing in the world) that she was growing potatoes. The idea that someone could grow their own potatoes, let alone in a bucket on the concrete balcony of a senior’s apartment building, completely blew my mind! I was already a gardener when the memory of Scylla’s potatoes came back to me, yet I am sure that they subconsciously served as the example I needed as an urban apartment dweller with the desire to make a garden and nowhere to grow.

The second thing my grandmother taught me (unintentionally) about gardening is that a garden can happen anywhere.

In the West Indies, my grandmother grew food and raised chickens and goats. I know this for certain, having gleaned little pieces of family history from anecdotes overheard while growing up, although I do not know the details. What did she grow? I know there was fruit, but I do not know who grew or cared for the trees. Perhaps no one did. I recall stories that mentioned paw paws (papaya), sour sop, and mangoes in the yard. Eggs were collected, the goat was milked, and the chickens lost their heads from time to time.

Despite these bits and pieces, I can’t really guess at Scylla’s relationship to gardening and it seems unfair to try to speculate or put words in her mouth. She’s long dead now. She can’t tell me herself and there is no one left to ask. Did she grow plants for pleasure, for purpose (food), or simply because it was second nature? After all, my grandmother came from a place where growing food (especially among poor people like herself) is just what people did. There was no fuss. It wasn’t a big deal or a greatly considered act, you just did it as a way to make use of what you had available and improve your quality of life.

The third thing my grandmother taught me (unintentionally) about gardening is that gardening is for all of us.

Here in the first world we think too much about whether or not we can or should garden. We mull and fret over what we don’t have, always certain that there is never enough space, knowledge, or gear. We talk ourselves out of gardening and wonder endlessly whether we have what it takes to be a gardener, even after we’ve started one.

Everyone can garden. You don’t even have to call yourself a gardener. You can grow a potato in a bucket on a concrete balcony. You can raise chickens in your backyard, grow and harvest your own fruit, and fashion your houseplants into a Holiday tree. You might never speak a word about gardening or being a gardener to anyone, and still be one anyway.

At least that’s what Scylla accidentally taught me.

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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18 thoughts on “Gardening Lessons My Grandmother Taught Me (Unintentionally)

  1. Strangely I had the same type of precarious relationship with my grandmother–with about the same amount of “love, caring and understanding”. I also learned sooooooo much about gardening from her, unintentionally and also to escape the house! She was of Irish descent (1st gen American). Revel in what you don’t have the answers to–you may not want them, and grow a potato or two. That in the end will be the only bit of “i love you” you will need to share with her memory..happy gardening (its in our blood!)

  2. This makes me think of my grandmother. I barely knew her because I grew up on the other side of the country, but I remember she was not the warm and fuzzy kind of grandmother. She was tough as they come, having raised 4 kids during the depression. She was a first generation American too, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. The only thing about her that wasn’t pragmatic and matter of fact was her garden. It wasn’t huge, but it was packed full of both flowers and vegetables. It was like a garden of Eden to me. My Mom always said when I was growing up that I must have somehow received my love of gardening from her.

  3. Very nice article.

    I wonder how many gardeners have stories similar to this. My grandfather was sort of the same way but he was one of the heavens your grandma was praying for. I’ve only ever seen one picture of me with me and it captures a moment in time that perfectly sums up our relationship. In it I’m four or five and crying and he’s yelling at me.

    A while back I realized that my interest in plants came from watching him grow food, everywhere he could plant a seed. He never explained what he was doing or let me be involved & I noticed that after his death was when my interest in plants sort of came up out of nowhere. It sounds silly but I think part of me was trying to connect with him in a way that I could never when he was alive.

  4. What an honest article. Few would have the courage to write all that personal stuff. They say it’s “therapeutic” to do this. It’s also very painful. Still, you deserve to be congratulated for doing this in a public forum.
    Eventually we realize that the people, particularly family, that we think care about what we do or say–really don’t even give a s–t!
    Keep on doin’ it!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing your stories. It means a lot to me.

    MrBrownThumb: I’d guess these sorts of stories are no less typical than the nicer ones — they’re just a little bit more complicated to articulate.

    What you said isn’t silly… it is natural to long for connectedness.

  6. Beautiful. Your three things you learned from you grandmother show sensitivity and intelligence. The description of her apartment put me right there with you. Thank you for sharing

  7. Interesting. I had the ‘warm and fuzzy’ type grandmother, as another commenter put it. My sister and I grew up with her right next door and she spent a lot of time with us. She had been a school teacher (the one room school house type) and I have many fond memories of sitting at her kitchen table drawing, painting, cutting & pasting, etc.

    I know that she used to garden and I think that she enjoyed it, but I don’t remember ever spending time with her in the garden.

    I grew up in the country. Both my parents and grandparents grew vegetable gardens and preserved for the winter. As a child, one of my chores in the summer was often weeding a row in the garden. I hated it! How tedious! Crouching down in the dirt, under the hot sun, pulling (often prickly) weeds. I never, ever, expected to be a gardener.

    Then I grew up, moved to the city for work. Missed the country, the wide open spaces, and – oddly enough – the gardens.

    I don’t specifically remember any gardening knowledge being passed on. If it was, I think it more likely came from my father. My mother tends the flower gardens, and works in the vegetable garden as well. But I think she sees the vegetable garden as a food source, where my Dad also sees it as something fun and interesting. He likes to try planting new and different things. I’m thinking is something he shared with his mother (the grandmother who lived next door). If there is a gardening gene, it was passed down from my grandmother to both of us.

  8. Wonderfully written! It’s amazing how much we pick-up “unintentionally” as children and use as adults.

  9. It is so blessed to find out that every being can teach. We may not like the lesson, or we may find it transcendent, but the fact remains that everybody has something to teach.

    Maybe we should all go work on our own lessons…

  10. Like Javachik I got my gardening lessons more directly, albeit grudgingly. I grew up the eldest of 13 kids and although we weren’t poor, my parents worked hard to stretch the budget. My childhood summers were full of days spent at the large garden plot my father rented from a farm just outside of town where we grew everything we could possibly grow. Lugging water from the well, weeding, and harvesting the results were part of all of my summers and I hated it. We were also drafted into strawberry picking for weeks every June. And it didn’t end there- we kids were in-house labour for the preserving phases as well! Hours of peeling piles of tomatoes for freezing and canning. Strawberries,plums and peaches were cut for freezing in sugar syrup. My most vivid memories of summer are sitting around the kitchen table with a paring knife and pruned hands, juices of something sticky dripping off my elbows. Then came pickling season- bushels of cukes would get soaked in the sinks and be ground into relishes, sliced into pickles or bottled whole with dill. We were a giant production line and I couldn’t WAIT to get away from it all!

    Now as an adult I completely appreciate all that I learned- I grow many veggies every year and am proud to say that my preserving skills are still intact. Using my father’s recipes, I make batches of dill pickles that my friends beg for every year. I’ve adapted many of his other recipes and we trade now- I even taught him to make tomato salsa (which is a huge improvement over his attempts at homemade ketchup- the one thing we as kids never did learn to like.)

  11. I’m glad your sharing this kind of personal history with your readers.

    I’m currently exploring my grandmother’s gardens on my blog as well. I have to piece my mexican grandmother’s garden together through sepia-tinged photos, I never met her. But i’m glad my mother learned her thrifty gardening ways and passed the knowledge down to me.

  12. I’m glad your sharing this kind of personal history with your readers.

    I’m currently exploring my grandmother’s gardens on my blog as well. I have to piece my mexican grandmother’s garden together through sepia-tinged photos, I never met her. But i’m glad my mother learned her thrifty gardening ways and passed the knowledge down to me.

  13. We were just having this conversation with my mother; that we wish there would’ve been more moments of dialogue about life with our elders. But there is this barrier, meant to create respect, I don’t know; or just the mentality that kids are not to be included in adult conversations. This has definitely spurred more conversations with my mother. What I also find interesting is how we are returning to things such as gardening (due to necessity), vegetarianism (due to lack of resources) and a multitude of other things that immigrants coming to both the US and Canada were (unintentionally or intentionally) forced to leave behind in their own countries. I hope that we’ve moved passed this dated mentality. Anyways, that is my humble little comment

  14. This is such a beautiful story. Though there was a slight disconnect between you and your grandmother it is still enocuraging to know that in retrospect you learned something from her. The idea of ‘grandmothering’ is often depicted as a woman who dotes of her grandchildren. However, it is often the stand-offish grandmothers who have the most impact on a child’s life because they are full a wisdom. Granted, having the doting grandmother is great, and having a doting grandmother that is wise is even better, but that is not always the case for some. This article represents how a person can extract the wisdom and knowledge from their sometimes uneffectionate grandmothers (grandparents).

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