Monday, May 21, 2012

Why I do it

Last year, about this time, I had a writing assignment due and I was stuck. Finally, after a long day of gardening, I poured myself a glass of wine and sat down at the computer. What follows, is what came out. As I was planting our garden again yesterday, I thought back to it. This year, each of my kids helped plant the garden at certain points (though Finleigh had to be banned after walking over a couple of rows and Nate tired fairly quickly). 

My First Garden
            An insect buzzed passed my ear. I froze, as I’d been trained to do, so as not to startle the little winged creature. I looked around as best I could without actually moving my head and saw a streak of black. I sighed and then continued digging. This fear of wasps has been with me for as long as I can remember. I suppose I should have been proud of myself that I didn’t jump up and run around screaming, but it was hard not be annoyed with myself and my fear of something that could (and would, I was sure of it) create a little bit of pain. I’ve been stung all of twice in my life and while the sting in no way compares to many things I’ve been through, like breaking my foot or having my children, I did not relish going through it again. I am a city girl. It pains me to say this because I come from good, Saskatchewan farming stock, but I grew up in the city and I suspect that is where I’ll always be.
After 12 years of living in townhouses with no real yard, my husband and I finally managed to move our three children into a house with four outside walls all our own. With this house, that is not connected in any way to our neighbours, came a yard with a garden plot in it that measures 420 square feet, a mere 80 square feet smaller than our first apartment. This is a large garden by city standards, though admittedly much smaller than the garden my grandma tended when I was a child. I was excited to start gardening since this was the first home I’d lived in that I could, but one often wants what they can’t have and then as soon as they have it, stop wanting it. Being no exception to this rule, I contemplated simply planting grass seed as I began to dig up the overgrown garden plot that was now my own.
I had modest plans for my garden. A few beans, a couple pumpkins and some potatoes, but even with the limited planting I planned to do, the whole garden still needed to be dug up. Weeds needed picking and the dirt needed turning. For all the things I didn’t know, I did know this. My experience in gardening was limited to my half hearted chores as a teenager where my biggest lesson was that gardening was boring. My second lesson was something about getting the whole root of the dandelion out or it would grow again, stronger. Or something like that, anyways. So when I dug up my first dandelion and heard a snap, I silently cursed, realizing I’d be doing this same thing in this same spot in a couple of weeks. I suspected that my efforts were simply an exercise in futility and was feeling confident that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I hoped that I was doing enough damage to the weeds I was pulling that they would not be able to grow back. I realized the irony that resilient weeds would grow back if the root was left, but the desirable plants would die if the conditions were not perfect, if they would sprout at all. Oh, the toil of humanity.
I was prepared for worms; worms aren’t so bad even if they are slimy, squirmy and squishy. They help our soil, right? But then I found myself apologizing to my worm friends as my cultivator cut them in half. I was pretty sure worms could survive such a wound, or at least that’s what I thought I remembered from high school science class. I hated causing such damage to the poor little soil helpers because surely being chopped in half was worse that being stung by a wasp. Then I dug up something that resembled an earwig and shuddered, remembering why earwigs have their name. I was grateful for the gloves I was wearing, a small barrier between the underworld and my skin.
A song bird was singing in the yard next door, the sun was shining gently down on me and the wind created a pleasant breeze. These were conditions that normally make me relax, feeling as though I am at one with nature. Instead, I found myself tensing with each turn of the soil, scared of what I would see next, willing myself not to scream like the city girl that I am. Hoping that each root I pulled was not a worm, I tried reminding myself that this is what I’d wanted since we’d owned our first home. I wanted to work with the earth to feel that connection my extended family has. I wanted to grow food because I remember picking food fresh from my grandma’s garden as a child. I wanted to garden because I think it’s important to understand the growing process.
I could go for weeks without handling food in its natural state. Frozen, canned and processed food easily replaces fresh produce and meat. In my more anxious times, I imagine how horrible life would become if we lost our food chain, or as I know it, grocery stores. If our oil supply was interrupted and we could no longer truck all that lovely food that is delivered to our grocery stores each week, I would become very hungry, very quickly. And then I think about my children and how they have such a limited understanding of how our food comes to our table, leaving mounds of uneaten food on their plates after most meals. These children with two city parents know very little about the cycle of life, even if their mom did get to spend her summers on a farm.
I remember clearly the summers I spent as a young child at my aunt and uncle’s cattle and wheat farm. My sister and I would wake up with our rough and tumble brothers and cousins and make our way down to the barn. Blond hair tussled from sleep and wearing light cotton pajamas and rubber boots, we would grab our buckets and “help”. My uncle would let us milk the cows, a task that I fancied myself quite good at as I managed a few drips of milk out of the patient cow’s teat. We would help clean the barn and then we would wander back up to the house for a breakfast with a whole new variety of dry cereals that my mom didn’t ever buy. Sometimes my grandpa would let me sit on his lap as he drove the tractor over the fields and would even allow me to hold the steering wheel as we puttered down a straightaway. I thought I was quite knowledgeable when it came to farming; after all I had family who farmed and had even spent my summers there. Oh, how little I really knew. That was fun, this is work. 
Shoulders aching, I stood up slowly, trying to straighten out my back. I’d been working for several hours and finally had the soil ready for planting. I heard a door slam and looked up. Out my four year old daughter walked, her blond hair tussled from the nap she’d just finished. I sighed, remembering why I was doing this. I can’t give my children the experiences I had as a child on the farm, even if it was just a glorified, child’s version, but I can show them how a pumpkin is grown. My daughter smiled when she saw me, absolute trust in her eyes with no doubt that I will take care of her. This is just a small gesture - my foray into the creepy crawly, dirty world of gardening – an attempt to instill in my children even just a small understanding of how our food grows. That the things in this world do not just appear on our store shelves, ready for us to consume, but they take time, work and effort. And for that, I will try, even for just a little while, to forget that I am just a city girl.

Retrospective note: The potatoes turned out great. We were eating them until almost Christmas. The pumpkins, on the other hand, turned to mush before they matured. 


  1. I have the same memories, except I got to grow up with a huge garden. All those times I had to sit and shuck corn, pop peas and cut beans whilst rolling my eyes at how boring it was. Now, I relish the joy of getting my hands on produce that still has dirt on it and take any opportunity to raid a friend's garden. Amazing how it's hard to really appreciate something until you look back at your life and realize how lucky we are.

  2. Sounds fun and I would be scared by the worms and wasps. I think I remember mom trying to plant a pumpkin and watermelon in our old house in Quesnel, and they didn't turn out at all. Atleast your potatos worked! :) When we were in Linden mom had a big garden and she even let me plant about 4 or 5 rows of my own sunflowers that grew to be taller then me!!!!