I feel like I’ve been a gardener most of my life – can you relate?
My awakening as a gardener came from visiting my beloved grandparents at their home on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast when I was around six years old. I got the bright idea of “helping” my gentle nana by scattering pea seeds all over her vegetable patch. She was uncharacteristically upset and gave me a good scolding. I had never seen her angry, so the garden’s importance sowed itself in my mind. Later she was remorseful and invited me to help her retrieve the seeds, showing me how to tuck them in to the soil properly in rows. And a young gardener was born!
She went on to teach me the names of her plants and of the wildflowers living nearby: swooningly scented roses and sweet peas, pristine white Snow-on-the-mountain, irises with their fluffy beards and netted falls, wild columbines growing in the nearby meadow.
Her garden would slumber in my mind for decades, long after I was grown and my grandparents had passed on. That old-fashioned cottage garden would come to represent my idea of the quintessential garden: a barely disciplined riot of herbs, flowers and veggies jostling each other for space; a haven for birds and beneficial insects; a place of colour, perfume, and texture. A perfectly perfect garden, with everything in tidy rows, all in its place, full of neatly-planted hybrid annuals and scentless roses, holds little charm for me.
I was initiated into the mystery, romance and importance of heritage gardens in 1993, when I had been gardening in my own yard for around 10 years. It was fate, apparently – I rarely read our regional newspaper, let alone drilled down to the Volunteers Wanted section. But there it was – a call for garden volunteers to research, create and maintain heritage gardens to extend the interpretation of local rural life from 1890 to 1910. The site was the Historic Stewart Farm, a restored 100-year old heritage farm in my own city of Surrey, British Columbia.
On a bright fall day I showed up at the Stewart Farm with 25 other prospective volunteers to learn more about the project. The plants and layout we chose, even the tools we would wield and gardening methods used, should as much as possible reflect how and what the Stewart family grew during the period 1890 to 1910, when they lived on this site.
We spent that fall and winter researching and planning. We combed the Surrey Archives for descriptions of local gardens of the time period, and recommended reference books to be acquired. We discovered how challenging it would be to find the old varieties as many are now extinct. We sent away to the US and England for catalogues of rare seeds, and obtained copies of local seed and plant catalogues from 100 years ago.
When I pored over these publications and read the names and descriptions of the seeds listed within, I was hooked. These seeds have been passed down through multiple family generations; travelled across continents and oceans with settlers on the move; and carried by indigenous peoples on enforced marches to reservation lands. Romance and heartbreak, self-sufficiency and hardship – all these stories are contained in tiny seeds.
I also learned there are important reasons to save these quickly vanishing old varieties, at a time when many of us are worried about genetic modification of the food we eat, preserving biodiversity, and seed patenting by multinational corporations. I am alarmed when I learn it is illegal to save your own seeds in some places – this serves those big corporations by making us dependent on them, which of course equals bigger profits for them. Our food system is broken.
“Non-participation in a broken system makes our broken system irrelevant.”Anonymous
Knowing these facts creates urgency in me to grow heirlooms (especially seeds) wherever and whenever I can. It’s my tiny way of sending a message to the small farmers and seed companies out there that I appreciate their efforts to preserve rare varieties, that I want to grow these seeds and plants, that I love the colours, variety of forms, and rich flavours of heirlooms. I’m also sending a message to those that would control seeds and our access to them that I can’t be controlled.
Think my small efforts won’t matter? That one person can’t effect change? Watch me, and join me! I’ll explore all this in greater detail in future posts, but that, my friends, is a story for another day.