Le paradis n'est pas artificiel …

August 19, 2004

Summer is as Summer Does

Some people are curious about where I keep a garden, living downtown in the city. I live in a block of heritage houses, and the heart of that block is a laneway full of raised-bed gardens, fruit trees and a pond. Here's a photograph someone took of our plot grown wild while we were in SF... the birds loved it, at least.


I love my garden. I've been container gardening in window boxes and on patios on and off for seven years, but this is the first year I have had my own ground level plot — though I recall giant zucchinis diverging into many chocolate cakes, and sneaking dirty baby carrots, in my Calgarian childhood — and plants simply flourish best in interconnectivity with the living earth; it's all 'dem bugs and worms. But, my friends, do not be chagrined by any concept of "lack of space" that has been holding you down. My first single, half-baked window box yielded plentiful radishes, and garden radishes pack a lot of satisfactory punch.

Get a plot of my humble garden's dimensions — four foot by six foot — and with decent dirt in there you can also pull up spinach, carrots, beets, peas, broccoli, choisum, mescluns, lettuce, basil, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, green beans, cabbage, mizuna, nasturtiums and marigolds. That's the haul so far this year; we're holding our breath on the Japanese eggplant, and removing our hats to the kholrabi and cucumbers — may they rest in peas.

I'm sorry for that, but it's the kind of day when I can tolerate my own bad puns.

I have an unconditional love for my garden, born out of the fact that I had to plant it at the same time as I wrote final term papers, and tend to the seedlings as I wrote exams. Acts of necessity and love. The garden is work which I adore, which creates authentically good things, and each year, as my self-preserved seed stock grows, the garden becomes more independent from larger economics — every year we get to eat more "free" food.

Then there's the fact that my new plot is part of a community garden, where we all trade spare sweet millions and bundles of basil for dirty baby carrots galore. We raise and share perennial plants and tree fruits, both amongst ourselves and the street community, and soon we're going to build a communal cob oven. If you have a community garden nearby, I'd heartily recommend you seek that out as your place to dig.

But again, other than the veggies being a bit stubbier, I took the same variety, quality and pleasure from a one-foot deep, sixteen square foot box that I built up on my old highrise patio, and that lonely crest even inspired a monologue on urban gardening and organic produce. (It was also inspired by a non-fiction assignment for school, so please excuse the tone of voice; I had this prof.) Anyway, read on if you're into it, but not (or especially?) if you're hungry.

From "Adventures in Boycotting Everything" (2002)


There's a knock at the garden door. I've known they were coming and I'm prepared, though it's my first time. I hurry outside; May sunlight dazzles my eyes, as I shush the landlord’s dogs and lean under the shadow of the steps.

``I guess here's fine —’’

`` — When you're not home?''


Under the dark heel of the house I can see again. A man leans back in the sun, whether under the weight of the big blue bin he carries, or to enjoy the warmth, I'm not sure. He sets the bin down.

``Here y'are,'' he says, in an unmistakable Commercial Drive dialect. ``So've ya gotta cheque fer this? Thanks; next time just put it in the bin, under these stairs. Okay, you folks enjoy,'' he calls as he retreats.

Oof — it was definitely the weight — I heft the ponderous bin to my chest, which is not as far away from my legs as was the delivery fellow's. I knock-knee into the boot room, and settle the bin into dusty window light. Cross-legged on the floor like a kid at Christmas, I pry off the lid.

The mute, boot-scented air fills with a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits. I am reminded of childhood gardens — I recall they too were organic — and wonder why the big box stores have no hint of this smell. The sunlit produce seems to burgeon before me, raw and unwrapped. Intoxicated, I lift items out and take them in as objets d'art: dinosaur kale, rubbery and bitter-green smelling; a great, sulphurous, tight-scalped cabbage; lemony-pungent tomatoes, red as flame, and oranges that send up whole groves when I scratch their skins; fiery-sweet green onions, bread-scented purple potatoes, and bananas — private in their scent — smooth-smiling yellow as the setting summer sun. Helpless with passion, I tear into an orange.

Next Monday, Blaine and I sit at a computer. We go to our grocery Web site, and enter a user name and password. After a moment, the contents of our next bin appear like a delicious promise. We spend a few minutes scrolling through the default fruits and veggies, click in a couple of substitutions, and enter catalogue items to the tab. A confirming click whizzes our order from Point Grey to East Van. Two days later, I brush cobwebs off our empty bin, and drop in a cheque. All day at school I anticipate opening the box under the steps — I dream about its perfume of the earth. Trips to the big box stores remain — or perhaps became — eerily unmemorable. Why go with routine when you can have obsession?


Ah, but obsession fades to routine itself, and it’s human nature to dream of bigger and better passions. After two years it all becomes part of the daily grind, and you want more. The timing is perfect when I dare to take things further — my partner is away and I have the place to myself. I decide I will construct a garden on our balcony. As I sketch an imagined sixteen square foot plot of knee-deep loam, I realise it won’t be easy, but by now, it’s already too late — I lust after the idea of bringing my own food to life. It has to happen, and fast — spring is already well underway.

I head to every scavenger's Home Depot: with my rusty saw I spook around a waste pile. Construction sites are usually abandoned on Sundays, but suddenly an older man in paint-smeared coveralls pokes a steel-toe at my scraps.

``'Ello,'' he says in a Quebecois accent. ``You ’ave need for wood — what are you wanting to build?''

I explain my plans for a plot of earth, and eventually life, high in the concrete jungle. As I point up at my balcony, Alex, the house painter, becomes inspired.

``'Dis is not ee-see, no, but it's posseble, with de right tools. Your saw is no good. ’Der is better wood in de garage, and I t’ink you will be needing imperméabilisent, some — sealant, no? To keep out de water.''

Alex finds a big piece of plywood in the garage, which he cuts — I mistrust my precision with the rusty saw — into four equal planks . I add a gem off the junk heap: a drilled-up plywood square perfect for a base — and heft it all back up to my apartment.

When I return, Alex is hammering at the screw top of a twenty-gallon can of sealant. ``Zut, zut, ’dats on good, oui — super-bon! But, it's coming a leetle... ugh.'' He spends twenty minutes in this chant — I brace the can, and fall into a trance — before the bludgeoned cap finally gives up the ghost. Alex pulls a handkerchief from his overall pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow. ``'Der.'' He sloshes sealant into a smaller can. I can’t thank him enough, and I invite him up for iced tea after work.

All afternoon I earn a farmer’s tan: I hammer the planks into a frame, which I fasten in turn to the drilled base super-bon, with twenty penny-nails. I seal the whole thing, and then turn the massive box onto blocks for drainage. I’m breathless as my garden box glistens complete in the sunset — cooler than anything from Home Depot. My muscles tingle with work rarely connected to food anymore, and I see Alex heading in from across the street.

The twenty sacks of earth take a drive into the country and a determined shovel; the seedlings take patience, but it all comes to fruition in the scents of ripe tomatoes and bell peppers. The grocery deliveries still graciously appear, but now just every two weeks. It's a pleasure to cut into the concrete jungle — a blue world of TV-lit apartments and bachelors' McDonald's suppers — and eat a spicy radish, slash a jalapeno's hot aroma against the smog, or unearth a deep magenta beet from my personal oasis.

It's 2004, and I only really have to buy cukes. Who needs kholrabi, anyway? ;-)

Posted by Delire at August 19, 2004 10:26 AM
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