I didn’t hold back for my partner Dan or the real estate agent.
“But look at the four-bay garage!” says Dan. “This is my dream house.”
We were standing outside the aluminum-walled farmhouse in downtown Brockville, a tiny one-and-a-half-story cabin, and a far cry from renting an apartment in a Victorian tractor-trailer from High Park. I immediately reported the deserted lot next to the property. “It’s a mess.” I kicked an abandoned vodka bottle. “Someone finished their lunch.” The task of turning this neglected expanse into something more than a parking lot seemed absurd.
Now, six months after buying the place at the last second and moving in, the land, which I refuse to call a lawn, is growing things. Things I know nothing about. The weed I kinda know, as in stay away. But the other things? I’m sure the neighbors are fed up with me crying out loud.”is it a weed or a plant?
Some people like to garden. There are entire stores and store departments dedicated to plants, trees, shrubs, flowers, seeds, soil, and similar organic materials. These places are called nurseries. I think of babies when I think of nativity scenes, not shrubs that look like Dr. Seuss characters. I had to learn about nurseries because I want to be a good neighbor. According to the city of Brockville’s bylaws, being a good neighbor means taking care of your property — growing things and everything.
“I get it. MULCH.”
We head to a nursery and buy fifteen bags of mulch. I go crazy with the mulch, thinking that pulverized wood chips strewn across the uneven plot would look aware. The mulch barely covers the periphery of the space. The land looks like an industrial wasteland. Maybe that is an industrial wasteland.
A dear friend gives me three magazine subscriptions as housewarming gifts: Canadian House and Home, Canada’s Home Style and Better Homes and Gardens. I flip through the magazines, my jaw dropping at the beauty and ingenuity of professional interior and exterior design and landscaping. An idea arises.
“I get it. GRAVEL.”
Dan draws the line at the leveling of the plot with gravel. His parents grew vegetables and fruit in their backyard in Saskatchewan. They only ate local products, canning them for the cold seasons. His mother, an industrious and cheerful woman, always bakes bread from scratch. My late mother, a grumpy, funny nurse, was very good at buying sliced bread from the supermarket. I agree with Dan’s judgment.
In April, I go plotting with a shovel, digging up anything that looks like a Star Trek Tribble. One day, vigorously unearthing brown buttons, a local gentleman passes by, stops and gives me a little history lesson on what he calls the “garden”.
“The fiddleheads should sprout soon.”
“Oh yeah. Loads of them. Where you have your shovel poised – it’s a fiddlehead.
I look at the mound of roots that I have already dug up. These things were fiddleheads?
“You mean the eater type?”
I feel an inexplicable guilt. I stop shoveling, go back into the house and sit down. I’m a fiddlehead killer. I love fiddleheads, the ones I used to buy at my local green grocer in Dundas West and Bloor. But get them out of the ground just like that? Don’t I need verification by a third party, other than a neighbor? Someone from the Department of Agriculture? I leave the harvest of the spring treat to Dan.
Dan begins to embrace the project. A neighbor gives us wood from an old vegetable bed and Dan rebuilds it in our yard. I pace, sprinkling things haphazardly, glancing enviously at the asphalt street.
I had a plant once. It was on my patio in High Park. I think there were flowers.
Then he died. Is that how it’s supposed to work?
In my defense, I understand why I have never gardened. As a tenant in Toronto and an active member of the public, I walked out. A lot. I went to restaurants, to shows, to meetings, to work, to the library, to visit friends who had gardens or not, to ride my bike, to hike. I used my apartment as a place to eat, sleep and shower. Now, as a homeowner in a city that has a formal garden designed by Frederick Olmsted of the Olmsted Brothers, guys who designed New York’s Central Park, I feel pressure to up my game.
We joined the Brockville Horticultural Association. The gentleman behind the desk offered us seeds, which Dan gladly accepted. He handed me the seeds to plant in a planter. He supervised as I gently pressed them into the ground, watered them, and backed away.
“You mean tell me something will grow?”
To my amazement and delight, green sprouts sprouted and soon, apparently, spinach will emerge. It’s satisfying to watch this little microcosm of the life cycle unfold. It also brings me closer to the earth, not just as an abstract environmental entity to be protected, but as a living, breathing support. A partner. A friend. Something to rely on. Something to cherish and respect.
Just like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, all my land needs is a little love. I’ll do what I can, and Dan will do much of the rest.
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