Over many years of classroom education and professional development, I’ve listened to lectures on a wide range of topics. One lecture in particular that I heard at a conference on northern studies struck a cerebral string that
has continued to reverberate after more than a decade. The talk was given by a young Dene (Deh-ney) and his co-researcher, an archeologist from an academic institution.
The Dene are the Aboriginal peoples of the Mackenzie River valley, from Inuvik and Aklavik in the Mackenzie River Delta and southwards. The Gwich’in, Sahtu Dene, Tlicho, Chipewyan, North Slavey and South Slavey peoples comprise the Dene Nation.
The authors presented the culmination of research by Native elders and young people that integrated oral history, material culture, and archeological data to produce a map of the travel routes that had made accessible, in sparsely settled and virtually undeveloped land, all of the essential materials and functions of life: game and fish for food, pelts for clothing, flint rock for starting fires and tools, fruit, water, shelter, and fire wood.
The map of trails, like a ballad, sang of the art of survival that had allowed a Nation to thrive in Canada’s far northern lands.
The map lead me to think about my life as a bunch of ventures strung across the land, each with a purpose linked to my quest to thrive in my environment. If it was drawn, such a life-map would have a wide range of symbols in its legend, for instance: universities, homes, rivers, lakes, highways, back roads, cycle paths, harbours, and gardens.
Strawberry Picking Time
The first garden of my youth was back at the family home in North Carolina. My folks were the first to buy land near the edge of town where a farm had been cleared and converted to residential lots. My dad built the Cape Cod home which housed my youth and planted the back corner of the lot in vegetables. Into the yard, my parents planted trees, some from New England where my parents had each spent their own youths, and other trees better suited to the southern climate such as flowering cherry, walnut, eastern red cedar, and the ubiquitous pine. We composted leaves and yard trimmings in large pile next to the garden.
At some point along his several career paths, my dad abandoned the garden. Perhaps he and my mother were too busy tending four offspring to tend a garden, or perhaps he became less interested in gardening and more interested in maintaining the house and car. My dad is one of those vanishing jack-of-all-trade types who fixed the car and our bikes and the furnace and the washer, tuned the piano, and helped us build doll houses in his basement workshop and tree houses in the yard, and so on. On the other hand, I also recall my parents complaining that the annual spraying for mosquitoes had wiped out all of the pollinators, which might also explain the waning interest in gardening. Tomatoes grow well during the hot humid Carolina summers. Years later, after spraying for mosquitoes was discontinued, my mother again planted tomatoes in the back yard. Two years ago, when my parents moved from the family home to a retirement villa, once again they transplanted the trees brought from New England planted tomatoes by the back porch.
'Putting By' Strawberries
My family may have abandoned vegetable gardening but we did not abandon the tradition of putting by fruit. We you-picked strawberries by the box and bought peaches by the bushel, froze them, and ate then them with cereal for breakfast. To put by peaches, we worked in the back yard. With giant plastic gloves covering our hands we dipped the fruit into a plastic barrel filled with weak acid to remove the skin, then pitted, sliced and placed the peaches in freezer bags.
A favorite memory is of my dad driving in the family van down the road to the swamp (which is now filled in and called a park and lacks all the magic of the plant-darkened musky wetland). While I waited in the van, he filled two pails with blackberries and then we added them to the fruit put by in the freezer. Blackberries have become the fruit I like to best to pick and to eat perhaps in part because it’s a way to relive a pleasant childhood memory.
Not a particularly tame young adult, I took off one summer to work on a dairy farm in Virginia, and the next summer to work on a cooperative farm in Ohio. The two experiences broadened by miles my experience with small plot gardening in the city. Home from the farm for a visit one spring, I planted herbs in the old garden plot though with no one to tend the garden, I think they were quickly overgrown by weeds. During those restless years, I made several false starts at several universities. During one of the short stints, I planted a plot in a university community garden. I don’t remember much about that garden other than harvesting green beans but I do remember feeling committed to gardening.
At 25, I left North Carolina where growing tomatoes and beans and corn was ‘easy as pie’, and resettled in northern BC (up by the Yukon border). I did not abandon gardenening. In silty soil on a bench above the Liard River by a cabin built of logs from an old burn, I planted everything from strawberries to red cabbage to tomatoes and green beans. In that far north location where summer days are long but rain is scarce, the red cabbage was the cream of the crop. One year I also planted potatoes down the creek where water was plentiful and maybe the crop would have been good but the pigs got to them before I did. Pigs are very good at rooting up potatoes.
When I retreated from the north to southern BC to return to university, we (by then I had four daughters) planted the abandoned plot in the back yard of the house we rented in Surrey. That was a great garden. We planted strawberries and pumpkins, among other edibles. Just before Halloween, we piled the pumpkin crop into the wagon and went from house to house selling the smallish orange gems to our neighbors.
Several years later, when we moved to Maple Ridge, we took the ever-bearing strawberries with us, and planted gardens at each of the three houses we would occupy before the offspring were reared and off making their own life-maps.
With a Ph.D. in hand, I moved from Maple Ridge to Edmonton, and then from Edmonton to Waterloo, and then from Waterloo to Calgary, and everywhere I lived I planted a garden.
Now I live I Vancouver. This time, the garden occupies the boulevard between the front yard and road.
The boulevard garden was inspired by Dave. Somewhere he saw a notice about neighborhood small grants, took it, brought it home, and shoved it at me while mumbling something about gardens. Eventually, I understood that he thought we should apply for a grant and that I should write the grant. So, I came up with a plan for transforming the boulevard lawn to garden-carbon sink- refuge for endemic plants-ecosystem with improved hydrology and a food web. To my surprise, we got a small grant.
With the grant money we bought blueberries and raspberries and a load of manure. I dug up sod and wheel-barrowed out to the boulevard the mulch and sand that were piled up on the back patio. After laying the weed cloth left over from the sidewalk caper, we shoveled on sand, mulch, and manure and then planted blueberries. Later, I used the wheel-barrow to move old bricks from the pile in the backyard out to the boulevard and placed them neatly around the blueberry patch. We planted raspberries next to the blueberries. That was the beginning of the boulevard garden. A little later on, Brad did some digging to make room for the dozens of tomato plants that Maeve had found abandoned on a neighborhood street corner. Our boulevard gardening was growing.
Through the first summer, I plugged away at digging up a strip of lawn at the back of the boulevard plot along the base of cement planter that separates the front yard and boulevard, planting herbs in each new square of bare patch. Thyme, oregano, marjoram, sage and fennel were transplanted from the back yard garden, mint was purchased ‘on sale’ from shops along The Drive, wintergreen and lingonberry were bought from a stand along the road between Sidney and Swartz bay, a curry plant was purchased from a nursery near Oliver, and dill was transplanted from a friend’s garden.
This year, we re-applied for a small grant to finish the transformation of the boulevard and were once again successful. George and Stefan helped dig up the rest of the lawn. In the newly turned ground we planted potatoes, peas, radishes, carrots, beets, sunflowers, broccoli, lettuce, squash, arugula, kale, lettuce and other greens, rhubarb purchased from a shop on The Drive, native blueberry and thimbleberry dug from the local forest, and native currant and huckleberry purchased from a nursery.
Mid-summer we got a big load of free cherry tree mulch from the city and filled the garden paths with cherry chips. We shared the cherry chip booty and plant cuttings from the garden with our neighbors and our mailman. The garden brought smiles from the neighbors on our block and a sense of connection with the other gardeners in our corner of Cedar Cottage. As the end of growing season nears, we will use the last of the grant money to buy a load of mushroom manure to spread over the garden, that will be covered with a layer of leaves, to nourish the beds in anticipation of planting next spring. Last but not least, we made a sign and put it up in the boulevard garden that reads ‘Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood Small Grant Project funded by the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Foundation’. We are grateful to the City and Foundation for the spirited support of community gardens and the people who thrive in them