Scenes from my Woodland Garden

I am typing this outdoors on a weekday morning, sitting in my woodland garden. The bleeding hearts are still blooming, their season extended courtesy of the cool spring. The Solomon’s seal hang their primordial arches over the garden statuary, and hover judiciously above the hostas. The fiddleheads have unfurled; the lilies-of-the-valley dangle their tiny bells; the violets are nodding their pretty purple heads. The garden casts a green glow.

I am sitting here, breathing, while a wash billows on the line.

A year ago, amid the pandemic, our life was as busy as ever, and in some ways more beset by urgencies than it had ever been, until, one day, we looked at each other and said “F*ck it,” and started talking seriously about retiring–my husband from his small business (and teaching during the fall and winter), and me from teaching (and working with him during the off-season–or, often, in the middle of the night). The overheated Toronto real estate market helped crystalize our decision to sell the small downtown building my husband had bought in the nineties, and after a quarter century of service (after enough glasses of wine I might be prepared to inventory the strange and disgusting things I have cleaned out of other people’s toilets), we retired.

This year I turned 50; my husband is closing in on 60. Like many Gen-Xers, we are sandwiched between parenting and eldercare, meaning we haven’t bought an RV yet! But we have embarked upon an important intellectual project, The Space Between Us, which consists mainly of us airing our differences in public in ways that, we think, can illuminate and perhaps map out ways to reconcile ideological differences in our divided culture. I continue to publish essays and review books (the latter mainly for Spacing magazine–hit up the editors if you have an urban-themed novel or non-fiction book pending), and have a book of my own to finish writing (for which I have spent a great deal of time reading 1940s issues of Chatelaine magazine–more about this anon).

The wind soughs in the trees. A robin flaps about in the bird bath.

After the sale of our building closed, and after my final term of teaching, I felt so tired it seemed impossible to focus. At night in bed, instead of reading I did crossword puzzles. I followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with dismay. I detached from social media. I went dumpster diving with a lovely neighbour. I went down to the basement almost every day and rowed, and now row at least 100,000 metres every month, accompanied by old X Files episodes. I have started walking long distances, as far as I can travel in three hours every Saturday while my daughter attends a downtown art class.

Last Friday I saw Sarah Harmer in concert at Massey Hall. It was a perfect, humid evening, and I rode downtown smelling the heady scent of lilac and crabapples, and listened as she raised her incandescent voice before a rapt audience in that beautiful building, and then rode home in the velvet night.

The garlic are getting ready to grow scapes. The rhubarb stalks grow with disquieting speed, seemingly overnight. I have planted borage. The carpenter bees have returned. My lilac, planted four or five years ago, has flowered for the first time. The iris are blooming.

A week ago we split the cost of a new fence with our neighbours. It is a very fine fence, and its construction has made me rethink the landscape of my woodland garden. I have cleaned out a neglected back corner and laid some stepping stones. I’ve cleaned out the composters and set two of them against the fence in a spot too shaded for much to grow. I have low stone walls to reset and a list of Ontario native plants to procure, and plans for a second row of raspberries to grow along the back of the garage.

Last night we went for a walk. This afternoon I will bike over to Canadian Tire in search of one last variety of hot peppers. Later on I might read on the verandah.

And tonight I will sleep on those wind-blown sheets, fresh in from the line.

Garden Census: June

A view of our woodland back garden, almost impossibly lush after a good rain. Everything is lush: this morning I rode up a nearby street carved out of a ravine, and the smells of rain and soil were so rich I felt as if I could still plunge my hands into the waters of the buried stream that still runs beneath it.

My secret rooftop garden is also lush, and this is something of a wonder, because late in the winter a raccoon breached a vulnerable corner of the eaves and, after making itself a den, gave birth to five kits. We listened to this burgeoning family cavort along the roofline for weeks (waiting in order to ensure the kits were large enough to survive out of the den) before calling a wildlife removal company to have the raccoons humanely evicted. Before their removal, however, the raccoons destroyed most of the plants I had begun to set out on the deck, and trampled my garlic, which had been growing serenely since last fall.

Between having to remove plants to less sunny environs or replace them entirely (several tomatoes and eggplants were lost to our cute but destructive visitors’ nightly rampages), I think I lost about three weeks of the growing season before I was able to return rescued plants to the top deck. And yet; and yet: the potatoes are big, the tomatoes are catching up quickly, the eggplants are blossoming (and a couple of plants are starting to set fruit) and even the hot peppers (Apaches, my favourite because the plants are compact and produce prolifically, and the peppers are bright red, hot but not outrageously so, and dry wonderfully for winter use) are producing.

I’ve also managed a first harvest for drying of some of the herbs (catnip, rosemary, sage) and, of course, go out at dinnertime almost every day to snip a few leaves of parsley, basil, tarragon, thyme or oregano) for salad. Every year I try to expand the varieties of herbs I grow: this year I’m up to 34 kinds (about 25 separate types if one excludes varieties; e.g., of thymes. sages and basils). I love their sweet or secretive smells, and the long cultural histories associated with so many herbs. My retirement fantasy is to one day operate a market garden focused mainly on culinary, medicinal and ornamental herbs.

I’ve also managed, for the first time ever, to grow zucchini plants that seem likely to produce. Zucchinis are supposed to be one of the easiest garden vegetables to grow, but because our property is mainly shaded at ground level and space is at a premium on the sunny verandahs and decks, I’ve never afforded squash plants adequate room to grow and as a result have usually lost them to powdery mildew or squash borers. But this year I’ve set a zucchini in a big urn in my secret rooftop garden and it seems to be thriving.

It’s also a great year for non-cultivated harvest: we managed a first mulberry pick a few days ago from a nearby street tree, and my raspberries, growing almost wild along a walkway between the garages, are burgeoning two weeks earlier than usual). I love raspberries more than any other fruit, and I love these raspberries especially because my thick, wild patch started out as a few surplus seedings my mother gave me from her garden many years ago.

What else is going on in the garden right now? Milkweed! It took years for us to establish even a single milkweed plant, but now we have seven or eight in the front garden, and their blooms are beloved by bumblebees and Monarch butterflies. And also: perilla! Last summer a neighbour gave me some perilla when we stopped to admire her garden. I read that it self-seeds readily, and so over the winter was careful to save the soil in the container where it had grown. This spring only a single plant popped up, and I was a little sad–until I started to see perilla in some of my other pots. I love its minty-licorice taste, and hope my volunteer perillas continue to multiply.

And garlic: here is a clutch of garlic scapes I managed to pull from the front garden. Almost two decades ago my mother gave me some of the serpent garden she grew around her front step to ward off witches, and it has grown pretty much wild in my own front garden ever since. No witches, either, or rather: only the good kind.

And finally: I will end here with a glimpse of the second floor verandah, which has taken a neoclassical turn of late. I bought these painted metal urns last weekend at what was probably the first yard sale I’ve attended in well over a year, and which hopefully will not be the last!

Three Views of Winter

The towering canopy of the honey locust tree that shelters our front garden, above; and, below, this morning’s view from the spare bedroom on the third floor.

Lastly, the view from the window of my office, a converted sunroom at the back of our house. Often cardinals come to visit, and sometimes a hawk.

In the night it snowed. The birds huddle together and then cluster at the feeder. Soon the squirrels will emerge from the roof over my head and descend to pick up the seeds they kick down to the ground. How stoically — how gently — the cedars bear the birds, the squirrels, the the feeder, and their burden of winter.

Gardens in their Seasons

This morning when I woke up, the house was cold. I went around, closing windows and doors. The sunrise was fuchsia, signalling a change in the weather, a shift in the season.

At mid-morning the air is cool and breezy. There are cardinals in the cedars, and finches at the feeders. The east-facing tips of the trees are turning colour, and the gutters are littered with leaves.

For breakfast I had wild apple sumac jelly on toast. A warm treat on a chilly morning. A good day for seasonal tasks of keeping: sorting the mittens and scarves, decorating the front porch for Thanksgiving, making a rustic apple pie. Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown: Shanah tovah um’tukah to all who will celebrate.

The picture above is from an old book, Gardens in their Seasons, published in 1912 (my copy a 1919 reprint). This is a charming, gently instructional book, written for young readers and wonderfully illustrated. I bought my copy at The Monkey’s Paw moving sale in the spring, and have kept it on my desk ever since, consulting it nearly as regularly as one would a book of days.

Of fall, the book notes, “Autumn has come; it is the time of ripening. [….] The hush and the stillness of late summer has been broken.” During this season, the book explains, the trees and flowering plants expend the last of their energy generating seeds to be spread by passing creatures or the wind. Readers are invited to “gather the prettiest and the best of the coloured leaves of the autumn,” to press into biscuit tins between layers of sand to dry and preserve their rich colours.

There is melancholy in the air, when soft days give way to chilly nights and the moon rises silently above the trees, overseeing this time of gathering in, this season of contemplation.

Garden Report, July

Every morning, shortly after dawn, I go up to the third floor deck to tend to the garden, sniff the scents of the new morning, and take a census of my horizon of trees.

Every morning has a different scent. This morning the air had a northern, almost September smell, until the sun breached the horizon. Yesterday the air was redolent with woodsmoke, drifting upon a wind that soughed in the cedars. The day before that the air smelled of the lake. In the hour after dawn the city, or my part of it, is silent. No traffic sounds, no sirens, not even an airplane. This morning the air is perfectly still, and only the birds and I are present to sing the morning open. The air is scented with ailanthus blossoms, opening about a week later than usual but as secretive and summery as ever.

Unknown heirloom tomato cultivar with complex blossoms.

This year I am growing at least five varieties of tomatoes, including “Summerlast’ (early-fruiting patio-sized supposedly long-fruiting determinate tomato plants, of which I have six plants going), ‘Rapunzel’ (a newish hybrid tomato that reportedly grows long, gorgeous tresses of cherry tomatoes; this is by far my tallest tomato plant so far, heading for five feet already as it begins to flower), San Marzano (two very sturdy plants, both flowering now), an unknown (because I failed to save the labeled starter pot) tomato plant I bought at the Junction Farmers’ Market, and several ‘heirloom’ tomatoes.

‘Heirloom’ is a bit of a misnomer, as there are many heirloom varieties of tomatoes. Heirloom or heritage tomatoes are typically open-pollinated, older, non-commercial cultivars. Reportedly they tend to lack the disease resistance and uniformity of commercial cultivars, but in compensation they are inherently more biodiverse and interesting to grow, and produce tomatoes of sometimes wildly varying sizes, colours and shapes. My ‘heirloom’ tomatoes came labeled as such at the Canadian Tire garden centre, with the note that each plant might grow quite differently depending on its variety.

This has definitely been my experience this year. Each of my heirloom tomato plants looks quite different. All are vertically inclined, although not rampantly so, and their leaves and blossoms are somewhat idiosyncratic. My favourite, so far, is the heirloom tomato pictured above, whose leaves emerge curled and inverted, almost as if blighted, but then unfurl, completely hale. The blossoms are also unusual, large and multi-layered. I have read that large blossoms produce large tomatoes, and am looking forward with considerable curiosity to see what this heirloom plant produces.

On the third floor deck I am also growing two containers of corn (this year’s wildcard), zucchinis (only two of which survived the early ravages of squirrels digging up the seeds; zucchini are supposedly easy to grow, but each year mine succumb to some new peril and/or fail to produce fruit), three large tubs of very large red potato plants, two eggplants, two sweet peppers, red onions, everbearing strawberries, garlic, and several varieties of herbs (lemon verbena, pineapple sage, lavender, basil, catnip).

Third floor back deck garden, late June 2019.

Most of my 22 varieties of herbs (this year’s herbs include lavender, basil, catnip, lemon verbena, lemon thyme, sage, oregano, rosemary, dill, tarragon, rue, summer savory, winter savory, marjoram, fennel, cilantro, parsley, pineapple sage, chamomile, sorrel, curry plant, borage) are growing on the second floor front balcony (shown below), alongside a few more tomatoes, bush beans, carrots, beets, more garlic and more red onions. Our radish have been pulled, and I haven’t yet decided whether to simply seed more dill or risk salad greens in the summer heat in their currently vacant container.

floor front balcony garden, 1 July 2019.

Sometimes I sorrow over not being able to grow more vegetables at ground level on our shady city property (currently our ground-level growing is limited to rhubarb, raspberries and red currants), but between patios, verandahs, balconies and decks we are able to dedicate about as much square footage to vegetables and herbs as we might manage in the soil, without the same risks of soil depletion and problems with pests.

Third floor back deck, plants aglow in the early morning light.

Still, at some point we will retire from urban life, and then I will have a half-acre vegetable garden, an arbor for fruit trees, and a kitchen garden filled with herbs.