Toronto Star column – published January 5, 2013
“If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” ~Mary Engelbreit
From time to time I have reflected in this column on the many lessons that my garden has taught me. It would be wrong to suggest that one can find the book of life in their garden. But it is equally inaccurate to suggest that the experience of planning a garden and growing one is merely a ‘nice to have’: the experience of gardening is much deeper than a trip to the gym or flying a kite.
A garden is our single greatest opportunity to connect with the natural world around us. Make no mistake; we are a part of a larger whole. As David Suzuki likes to remind us, we are animals, even though we live much of our lives in denial of this fact.
This is the first Saturday of a new year. The timing is perfect for a little reflection and for a deeper conversation with the garden that I live with. Come spring there is scarcely the time to contemplate what it means to cultivate, sow, plant, nurture, and harvest. All I want to do is get the heck out there and turn off the rest of the world.
With this in mind, I have made some promises to myself and, by extension, to my garden. Yes, the experience of gardening continues to change me as a river changes its course. Here is my position on the subject for 2013:
I will Listen More.
My world is full of noise. In the morning I get in the car, turn it on, and the radio is already set at a predetermined station with music or talk blaring. By day e-mails fill my head with information and planned responses. Television is my primary distraction before going to bed. For the most part it is so unstimulating that I find I can sleep quite well after an hour of viewing.
When I go into the garden, I defer the control of my environment to passing traffic, a train moving in the distance and oh yes – birdsong, wind passing through tree tops and, if I am really lucky, the buzz of a honey bee or hummingbird finding something of interest in a nearby flower.
This year I am going to be more attentive to such things. I will take more time to absorb the music of nature precisely where I find it. I will not try to control it by filling my head with Nicki Minaj by way of ear buds. I will turn off my cell phone. I will leave the power equipment in the shed whenever I possibly can in favour of a rake, a hoe, a walk-behind-reel-type lawn mower, and the myriad other hand tools that can ‘do the job’ with a modicum of greater physical effort and time.
I will Observe More.
The fish in my pond rise up to the waters surface when I pass: a trained response to the approach of the man with the food nuggets. When my Koi and gold fish arrive to say ‘hello’ I will take a little more time to marvel at their colours and notice their amazing movement: like the school of cyclists that pour past my home on a Saturday morning in summer. Perfectly synchronized in their miss-matched outfits.
There was the tiniest of bird nests in one of my dwarf apple trees this past summer. I only noticed it when I drove past it on the ride on lawn mower and it brushed against my shoulder. It belonged to a finch, mother-in-waiting who was more than attentive. She was a saint for sitting on her eggs, 5 of them smaller than my baby finger nail. All bird-mothers are saints.
Next year I will get off the ride-on mower and spend more time wandering through my apple orchard without any specific purpose, other than just doing it.
I will Create More
One of the wonders of humankind is our ability to dream and convert dreams into something real. Gardens are the result of this ability. There is, after all, no animal that dreams and creates quite like we do. This ability can destroy nature or build it up.
My garden is my best opportunity to work with my natural surroundings to enhance what nature intends to be there. Moreover, I can dream about the property as it once was, covered with a dense mix of trees that stood like giants with their feet firmly rooted in the soil. If I cannot convert my garden into its former natural glory, what can I do to enhance the property to strengthen the link between it and the land that it springs from?
I will Feed and Nurture More
If there is just one thing that I have learned from my garden over the years it is this: one reaps what one sows. I feed the soil and the soil gives back aplenty. My vegetable garden is the greatest gage of this, though the exercise is equally informing with my ornamental trees and perennials.
By ‘exercise’ I mean the annual practice of adding a large quantity of natural, organic material to the soil in an effort to build it up the community of insects, beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizae that make up the foundation of the plants that grow there.
Farmers and gardeners share a stewardship of the land. Each spring I add several cubic yards of compost, composted horse manure, and sharp sand to open up the heavy soil. I encourage you to do the same, keeping in mind that the healthier your soil, the better the performance of your garden. It is as simple as that.
I will Share More.
This New Years I am taking the time to look around me. Who can benefit from my garden? For the last two years I have hired an intern student to help me with my gardening. The experience has been rewarding in many ways for me: they tell me that they have benefitted also. This year I am looking to hire another one. If this garden can enlighten someone in the flower of their youth, so much the better.
As my vegetable garden grows and matures throughout the season I bring the excess produce to my buddy Ted at Mothers Deli in Unionville for him to sell. I don’t charge him for it. He sells some of it right off of the shelf and makes his famous pesto sauce and soup with the remainder, which he also sells to his fortunate clientele. The money is turned over to the Markham Food Bank.
This year I will ask Ted to make a list of the veggies that are of most use to him and I will plan the garden after his wishes, instead of planting what I like to grow. This way, perhaps, more will benefit from this fun and symbiotic arrangement.
And finally I plan on sharing more with Toronto Star readers. I believe that sharing my experience can encourage readers to overcome fears of failure, to pick up a trowel and give it a try. To get your knees dirty and feel good about it. To experience the experience of gardening in a fuller way. Then, perhaps, all of us will have made progress in 2013. And our connection to the real world around us will be that much better.
Question of the Week
Q/ I brought a Mandevilla plant indoors for the winter. Now there are small flies flying around the plant. How do I control these pests?
A/ Allow the top 1” of soil to dry before watering the plant. This will reduce the population of Fungus gnats. Sticky traps can be used to catch flying fungus gnats.