Published in the Toronto Star – January 28, 2017
Not all gardeners are created equal. My late father would have called me a ‘plantsman’. My interest in gardening springs from a keen interest in plants and how we use them.
I think that this is the result of being raised in the retail gardening trade. I recall a sign that was featured at our family stores that read, “Weall and Cullen Nurseries. Where the Evergreen is KING!” illustrated with a cartoonish spruce with a crown on its head. Dad had a sense of humour.
I find it interesting that the very place where that sign once hung at his Woodbridge store is now occupied by a bank. The currency of one business (evergreens) replaced by the currency of another (cash).
Over 50 years later, here I am trading in words. I believe in the power of words. They can make peace and war and what is more powerful than that? Using words, I reflect on the true meaning of what gardeners do. And the value of it.
In Washington DC, at a subway station, on a cold winter morning, a man played a violin. Six pieces of Bach in 45 minutes. About two thousand people walked by, most of them on their way to work. About four minutes into his performance the first dollar was dropped into his violin case.
Ten minutes later a small boy tugged at his mother’s sleeve, encouraging her to slow down and take in the music. The mother pulled back hard and they were on their way. This happened a few times during the performance: children trying to slow their adult company down to listen. Every time the bigger person won the tussle and they moved on.
During the performance, six people stopped to listen for a short while and in total, the violinist collected $32. As he packed up, no one noticed that he had stopped playing. No one applauded.
Two nights earlier the musician, Joshua Bell, had played to a sold-out crowd in Boston where the average seat sold for over $100. He played on a violin valued at more than $3.5 million. Mr. Bell is acclaimed as one of the most talented classical musicians of our time.
The Washington Post had created this social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities: in a commonplace environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
My keenest sense of beauty during the gardening season is early in the morning, when the birds are singing and the smell of fresh earth is rising. All my senses are on alert. I feel alive as I experience a symphony of sensations. I hold those images and feelings in my mind for times like this, when the snow is heavy on the ground and frost is on the window pane.
The closest that I come to that feeling this time of year is to listen to music like that of Joshua Bell. I close my eyes to imagine images of life in my garden as I know them in the growing season.
What is the value of what we do as gardeners?
It is hard to say what the value of our work is. If you walk past a beautiful front yard garden in full bloom while on your way to work, chances are you won’t see much. However, on a weekend morning on your way to the local play ground with your three-year-old in hand, you may see it differently. Especially if your kid tugs at you and pulls you down to look at a butterfly on a flowering shrub. What do you see then? Through the filter of a pair of young, fresh eyes, you suddenly see the wonder of it all. You see hope.
To answer the question ‘what is the value of a gardeners work?’ we need to ask another question, “What is the value of nature?”
There was a time when gardeners saw themselves as warriors, determined to slay the aggression of the wilderness. We strived to take control. That is why gardeners, just a couple of generations ago, embraced the use of pesticides like 2,4 D, malathion, Cygon 2E and ‘Brush Killer D’ – the only product on the retail market that would kill poison ivy.
We still do our share of controlling. We cut the grass, trim the hedge, hack back the aggressive growth of the evergreens in the yard.
But there are great changes afoot in the Canadian garden.
We are planting record numbers of native plants.
The word ‘biodiversity’ has entered our lexicon. Many gardeners are making special efforts to attract hummingbirds, song birds, bees and butterflies to create a more ‘biologically diverse’ environment right in their own yards.
We are conducting a social experiment of our own every time one of us signs up to produce food in a local community garden.
In the ever-changing world of gardening, where our work is never finished because Mother Nature is forever changing it, I believe that there is more value in being a gardener today than at any other time in our history. And I am very glad to be a plantsman.