For some inexplicable reason I have lost a BIG chunk of unanswered email. If you sent me an email between last Wed and today and have not heard back please get in touch again. Chances are your email disappeared!
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.
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.
I’m excited to announce that I will be writing a seasonal edible gardening column for The Globe & Mail that will be published most Saturdays in the Style/Life Section of the paper from now until fall. The first, introductory article was published today and is available for free viewing for a limited time on The Globe & Mail website.
It’s not too late to get started growing an edible summer bounty!
I spent Arbor Day weekend in the countryside outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, speaking and conducting workshops at Terrain, the new garden center opened by the company that owns Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, among others. The best word or phrase I can come up with to describe Terrain, besides stunningly beautiful is well-appointed. It is by far the most perfectly organized and detail-oriented garden center I have visited to date. I could have set up a cot in a corner somewhere and moved in for a month, and I would have been comfortable and engaged for the duration. Not only was the overall space beautiful and harmonious, but every single inch seemed to be accounted for.
The effect on my brain was simultaneously relaxing and overwhelming. As a result I took very few pictures, barely enough to provide you with a tour.
I was at Terrain for two days yet I did not have nearly enough time to explore… after all they had brought me out to do a job and that was my primary focus. I’d love to go back again as a regular customer and have the full experience over the course of a full day: slowly meandering among the plants and displays from building to building, followed by lunch in the cafe. When they first told me there was a cafe on site I was sold. Spending hours labouring over plant-buying decision-making is hard work! But the cafe at Terrain doesn’t just serve any old food, they serve GOOD FOOD. Again, I was always either too hungry or too rushed or without camera to take a photo but every meal they prepared for me was delicious and beautifully presented. When I arrived at my hotel after a long day of travel there was a boxed meal waiting for me prepared by the chef. It contained: a microgreens salad topped with seasonal asparagus and Parmesan shavings. The salad dressing was perfect, and not too heavy on the vinegar as is often my complaint with most restaurant salads. This was accompanied by some kind of whitefish (I’m not sure what but it might have been poached) and a side of what I believe was basil-infused oil. There was also a box of toasted baguette slices with herbed butter. I generally try to avoid sugar, but the desert was an espresso-soaked tiramisu presented in a glass jar. How could I NOT eat that? And then I pretty much didn’t sleep that night, but it was worth it.
On day two my lunch contained a similar salad (I requested it again because it was THAT good), although this one had yummy, soft white beans instead of asparagus. There was also a split pea soup served in another glass canning jar and a miniature bread loaf baked and served right in a tiny terracotta pot! I wish I’d got a picture of that but I didn’t have my camera on hand. On Saturday my guests took me out to a local restaurant that featured a 100 mile menu. The food was great but the highlight was actually a Mexican ice cream place called, La Michoacana where I chose the most unusual flavor on the menu, corn ice cream topped with chili powder! Folks, I had corn ice cream in a small town in Pennsylvania! Who knew?
And now I am hungry, having just described food for two paragraphs.
Back to Terrain. While conducting workshops I was introduced to their potting soil, specially prepared for Terrain by Organic Mechanic. It is by far the most beautiful potting soil I have ever used. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE that potting soil. I could not stop running my hands through it. It has the absolute perfect texture and consistency, and is comprised of all of the best ingredients including coir instead of peat, rice hulls, and worm castings. Why can’t someone over here make a prepared potting soil even remotely as good as this one?
Some other highlights I managed to photograph:
And here’s what I bought. I came out relatively unscathed since I didn’t have a lot of time to shop, can’t take plants over the border, and didn’t have much room in my luggage. I think I’ve left a few odds and ends out, but I am already forgetting what it was. The two seed packets with vintage-inspired illustrations were purchased at Terrain but the others were purchased across the street at Target. I purchased several more than are shown but they have already been opened, sown, and scattered somewhere among my various seed storage methods. We don’t have Target here in Canada so the trip was a bit of cultural anthropology in itself. Shannon and I spent a good hour or more walking up and down the aisles marveling at the curious items and getting high on off-gassing plastics. I also bought water flavored with mint, which I’ve got to say was oddly unpleasant and seemed kind of silly since you can simply add some mint to water to achieve the same effect.
You’ll recognize the old-thymey letter-press cards from my Holiday gift round-up. I’m not sure how the metal globe thing is supposed to be used, but it looked like something I could have fun experimenting with. Amy Goldman’s “The Compleat Squash” was a total score since a friend just recently informed me that it is out of print, and to top it off I got it for half price from the sale section. I was so excited to discover it on sale I mentally patted myself on the back as if I had achieved something miraculous in finding and then purchasing it.
- The HomeGrown “In Food We Trust” Photo Essay Contest – You can win tickets to Bonnaroo this June by showing the judges (of which I am one. Bwahahaha… Not sure why that is menacing, actually.) in 6 photos or fewer, How are you eating differently these days and how are you connecting to the sources of your food.
- David Suzuki Digs My Garden – Hey Canada! It’s not too late to apply for this contest to become a featured gardener under the watchful eye of a fantastically creepy David Suzuki garden gnome.
- Inside Grey Gardens – Amazing photos that depict both the house before, and the garden after it was restored and revitalized.