This week I looked out my back door to the spectacle of dozens of ping pong ball-sized radishes emerging from a plot of soil which only weeks earlier had been covered with grass. A few radishes, once sliced, proved a splendid addition to the salad that accompanied the day’s dinner. No sign yet of the tomatoes, but the carrots looked nearly done, and the spinach was getting sufficiently leafy to become a salad itself. It almost seemed too easy: I dug up a patch of lawn, placed some seeds and a few tomato plants, and a few weeks later there was food in my backyard. Why hadn’t I tried this before?
Lot sizes in the West End are small by some standards — 25 feet x 100 feet in my case — and often feature (as mine does) a back-lane garage. But what’s more important than the size of your yard is what you do with it. A neighbour of mine on Sherburn Street has managed to exploit each square centimetre of available land, from the back lane to the front street, creating a veritable jungle of ferns and flowers so pleasantly dense that, walking along the stone path or sitting on one of the benches, you feel as though you’re in another, perhaps tropical, climate. But you’re not — you’re just standing atop some of the world’s most fertile soils.
Easy to forget
In the middle of the city it’s easy to forget why, despite the merciless winters, Europeans settled Manitoba in the first place: Things grow here.
Before entering Grade 4, I moved to Worthington Avenue in St. Vital, where I enjoyed a 100-metre-deep yard where things were already growing. It’s difficult to say whether we had a large garden or a tiny farm, but nevertheless the furthest portion of the back yard was devoted to growing things. Half of it was a corn field, the other half a mélange of fruits and vegetables: Lettuce, strawberries, onions, even grapes! Those grapevines, winding up the mesh fence that separated our yard from the neighbours’, yielded so much grape jelly during those years I now wonder whether back then I had ever had a breakfast without spreading any on toast. Much of our giant freezer was devoted to storing jars and jars of the purple stuff. Neighbours and relatives never seemed to tire of it as a gift.
Recently, however, when I returned for a look at my childhood home (having not seen it for a decade), I was shocked at what I found. No corn, no strawberries, no grapes — just freshly mowed grass, and plenty of it. Of all the things one can grow in one’s back yard, lawn grass must be the most overrated. What, exactly, is it good for? If you’re playing football, baseball, or soccer it beats Astroturf, but — among parents and neighbours, if not kids — backyard ball sports remain unpopular for the broken windows that often result. In the October 18, 2004, issue of The New Yorker (Greening Manhattan), writer David Owen of Connecticut also questioned the worthiness of maintaining a giant lawn:
“One of the main attractions of moving to the suburbs,” he writes, “is acquiring ground of your own, yet you can travel for miles through suburbia and see no one doing anything in a yard other than working on the yard itself (often with the help of a riding lawnmower, one of the few four-wheeled passenger vehicles that get worse gas mileage than a Hummer). The modern suburban yard is perfectly, perversely self-justifying: Its purpose is to be taken care of.”
Gardening is neither hip nor trendy, neither fashionable nor dated — it just is. In this age of pre-processed, overpackaged foods, big-box grocers, and genetic engineering, it’s hard to imagine anything more natural, more primordial, than growing your own food outside your house. Yet, among my peers, I know few capable gardeners. Actually, I know none. This year’s vegetable garden was possible only via the supervision of my mother, whose green thumb through the years kept on creating kale, or potatoes, possibly cilantro, and certainly many kinds of flowers that might not be edible but do add so much beauty. Indeed, the very act of spending time in the garden has enriched my life, allowing me to bond with a parent with whom I once though I hadn’t much in common.
There are a slew of reasons why younger adults today might not be embracing the garden — media overload, an increasingly narcissistic and consumeristic popular culture — and while I too might’ve once dismissed garden maintenance as an uncool pastime, I’m happy to report that, in 2006, I’ve spent many more hours in the garden than in the nightclubs. And it’s only brought me stronger health and greater happiness.