Toronto Star column – published February 22, 2014
Don’t Feel Sorry for Gardeners
“In seed-time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” ~William Blake
I was asked the other day if I wished that I could live in a climate where I could garden all year round. Without any hesitation I answered, ‘No’. Then I began to think through the reasons why I feel so strongly about that. Here is my answer in five parts:
1. This is my vacation. It may seem odd to a non- gardener to hear someone who loves it actually say that they need a vacation from it. But then, the best part of any vacation, from my point of view, is coming home. Yes, I enjoy the ‘break’ of being away from familiar places, seeing familiar faces, and enjoying an environment that is different from the norm. I also believe that it is good for all of us to ‘get away’ from time to time, if only to appreciate what we have at home. Ditto the gardening experience.
2. Gardening is an active sport. I know you don’t think of it as a sport, per se, but look at it this way: according to the ultimate authority, Wikipedia, the word sport comes from “the old French desport meaning “leisure”, with the oldest definition in English from around 1300 being “Anything humans find amusing or entertaining”. Based strictly on this definition, gardening is as much a sport as hunting or fishing. Maybe a more civilized one at that: after all, we are not killing our play-things but rather planting and nurturing them, for the most part. And yes, at the end of the day, we can eat the spoils of our efforts too. In this regard gardening is the ultimate outdoor sport.
My point about gardening being a ‘sport’ is that it takes a lot of energy, time, imagination, and commitment to garden properly. Come late November gardeners, even passionate ones, are ready to hang up the trowel. We have been at it, after all, since mid March or so.
3. We think. It is hard for the non-gardener to appreciate the creative juices that are invested in the efforts of gardening. We don’t just wander out to the yard on a Saturday morning and start digging. No, there is an enormous amount of planning that goes into this endeavor. We have to know, in our mind’s eye, what the garden will look like each year, what vegetables and fruits it will produce, where the kitchen herbs will be planted, and, above all, where we are going to sling the hammock. You think this stuff just ‘happens’? If you do, I will take that as a compliment. As my late father Len would say, “The mark of a professional is one who makes their work look easy.”
Winter is not just ‘down time’ [although it is that], it is also a time when the urgency is gone. There are no weeds begging for their heads to be chopped off or beans that need picking on this very day. Gardeners are afforded the luxury of researching ideas that might work for us in our own garden: we read everything that we can to stimulate our thought process [including the stack of gardening magazines that we didn’t get to earlier in the year] and we order seeds from catalogues.
4. We socialize. Gardening is a bit like writing: it is a solitary experience, when we are actually doing it. However that does not mean that we are not social people. Very much the opposite. There is nothing we love more than getting together to compare notes, pictures, gardening travel stories, and to brag about the size of our tomato crop. We are inquisitive too: we ask each other a lot of questions.
Winter is our time to get together. Garden Clubs, Horticultural Societies, courses on every aspect of gardening, and casual, thrown-together meetings occur with tremendous frequency when the snow is piled high.
In this regard I contend that gardening cures shyness. I have frequently seen otherwise shy, retiring people open up and offer an opinion or reflect on an experience where gardening is concerned. It is the ultimate motivator for the tight-lipped. When a group is talking about the size and abundance of blooms on their amaryllis bulbs, how can you resist the temptation to contribute to the conversation when you KNOW that you have the biggest and the best?
5. We organize. Remember all of those pictures that you took of your garden this past season? Now is the time to file them according to date, get them ‘right side up’, and delete the duds. I find that organising my photos is a great reminder that they even exist. I am one snap-happy shooter during the gardening season. But my mind is preoccupied with ‘getting it over with’ so that I can get to the real task at hand: weeding, sowing, harvesting etc. For this reason I often forget that I actually captured a moment with a sunflower: butterfly, flower, and all. Or that gorgeous shot of a garden gate, draped in clematis in full bloom. No-one has to know that it looked that good for only a couple of days: I have it in full, permanent colour on my lap top.
Photos are not all that we organise. We organise the images in our head too. There is, after all, the amazing garden of tomorrow: the one that does not yet exist in reality but does in our brain. Winter is our time to think about the changes that we are going to make to our garden.
I am planning a new ‘green roof’ on top of my fire wood shed, a couple more pergolas in the back garden, and I am making a list of the veggies that I am going to grow. I am negotiating with the cook in our house [that would be my wife] and Ted, the deli owner down the street. He makes the best tomato sauce in the world, using my organic, free range, grass-fed San Marzano tomatoes [ ok, maybe not grass-fed].
Yes, gardeners dream while the snow piles high. Others may ski or play hockey or trap muskrats in the muskeg. It is not that we can’t do these things too: we often do. But don’t be fooled by a gardener who busies himself snowshoeing through the drifts. He may bear all of the appearances of loving the experience, but in reality he is killing time, waiting for the frost to bid us goodbye.