We live in a modest clapboard house in a typical blue-collar neighbourhood nestled beside Lake Ontario in Canada. Our winters are generally cold and snowy, but last year we had little snow, our lettuce lasted into October, and we struggled with imported pests and bouts of drought mixed with drenching downpours. It was also the year we fell in love with gardening.
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We’d lost a beloved, giant silver maple in our front yard to old age and worries of rot. It was time to break out the beer and weep into our frosty glasses, but then we noticed through our bleary tears bright sunshine flooding in through our picture window. Amazed, we realized we’d been living in the shadow of our dear old friend for years. Then came a thunderbolt - we now had the opportunity to grow something other than sparse grass and hostas. We excitedly began to chatter about Shasta daisies, black-eyed Susans, Salvia and snapdragons...and, dare we dream it? Vegetables?
Ours is a tight-knit neighbourhood populated with practical folk. Some had vegetable gardens, but sensibly they were in their back yards. Our backyard had another silver maple (when we’d moved in we called them the Two Sisters). It was perfect for a shade garden and a cool place to hang on summer evenings. Sun-loving vegetables were out of the question. But we’d always longed to grow our own Victory Garden, a way of becoming more self-sufficient, more healthy, more green, more frugal! We hated the cardboard tomatoes from the grocery store, felt guilty about buying food out of season shipped from half a world away to reach our table. We wanted to support heritage seed growers, those keepers of the ark of yesterday’s bounty. And we wanted taste!
But, then again, we wanted to keep peace with the neighbours.
We don’t live in an upscale neighbourhood where people monitor truant mowers of manicured lawns, but people here do have a sense of pride in their homes and our street. So there was some talk about our new plans. It’s a bit of a mystery to us why some people think a vegetable patch attracts rats when it’s in the front yard, but not in the back. We never dreamt that anyone could consider runner beans an eyesore. We knew there were even some who whispered that we were turning into (heaven help us) radicals.
So, with the neighbours in mind we plotted to disguise our new veggies with banks of flowers and showy shrubs. We dug up strips of grass with glee, discovered an army of grubs and exposed them to grateful robins, enriched the soil, bought heritage seeds and flung ourselves into becoming urban farmers. Neighbours were cautiously supportive, more so when the flowers began to grow among the Swiss chard and purple chives, then delighted when the bounty of tomatoes, beets, spinach and herbs were shared amongst them. We grew ground cherries and handed them out like candy. Even the neighbourhood cats were thrilled with our clump of catnip (although we were less thrilled with the occasional return “gift” left in a corner of our yard). Besides the weather, the slugs, the blossom-end rot and the work, the garden was a great success.
We decided to “put up” our harvest, and discovered water-based paint will streak if subjected to steam caused by hours of blanching and canning. Neighbours must have wondered at the dense fog coating our windows, especially in our uncharacteristic hot and humid autumn. Drying veggies became the better option. We have beet chips, dried tomatoes and herbs still in our pantry. The dehydrator also proved worthy by allowing us to preserve locally grown plums, apples and currants in season.
This year we bought an outdoor two-burner stove so we can cook and can our tomato sauces in the back yard without turning the house into a sauna. We kept the best tomato, bean and pepper seeds and bought new heritage eggplant, peas, lettuce and herb seeds. We’re also trying butterfly weed, lady’s mantle, cupid’s dart, nasturtium and sweet alyssum this year. Our basement is set up with folding table and grow lights, ready to start our treasured seedlings during March break. We hope the decorative trellises for the beans and tomatoes and the multitude of flowers will keep our neighbours sweet.
Nowadays, we cross our fingers and watch the weather. We’ve been saving eggshells to banish the slugs and planning the outlay of the garden. We haven’t bought a big brown dog or overalls yet, but we’re proud to say we’re on our way to becoming real, genuine, urban farmers. Better for us, better for the planet, and hopefully, better for our neighbours.
Maybe next year, chickens? Naw, better not push it.
About Bonnie Lavigne
Bonnie lives in a older but pleasant lakeside neighbourhood in South Etobicoke, Canada. Besides working full time as a warehouse facilitator, she enjoys writing, gardening, cooking and preserving her bounty of organic, heiroom veggies.