“I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.”Bill Mollison
This is a magical time of the year. When I heard the first robin sing the other day, I realized how desperately quiet winter had been. When I see new birds arrive at the bird feeder who weren’t there two weeks ago, it’s clear that all animals are celebrating the arrival of spring. It doesn’t matter that there may be a little snow on the ground, because suddenly there are creeks that have come alive and rivers are rising with the breakup of ice. Canada geese are on the wing, and vultures hover overhead riding the warmer air. We also emerge from our wintry habitats, change our shoes and adorn ourselves with spring apparel, and open windows to fresh air and perhaps new ideas.
As the price of food rose 10% last autumn, did it occur to you to consider starting a garden, but then to ask where? Why not put the garden where presently there is a patch of grass? There are so many reasons to do so. It’s hard to beat freshly picked peas, spinach or tomatoes, and a parade of sweet pea flowers adds fragrance and colour; no lawn offers that. Besides, a liberated area of earth allows for a plethora of beneficial insects to enter the space. Furthermore, biodiversity flourishes when the garden is an organic one. Organic horticulture respects the soil and the creatures who live there; harmful herbicides and pesticides are not used. Although organically grown seeds are slightly more expensive than others, they are the foundation for any garden, as they are free of chemical residues that contaminate the land. It’s also fun to save seeds from your organic produce.
In the depths of winter the joyful and hope-filled arrival of the seed catalogue kicks off the flurry of dreams, plans and actions for our awakening. You might have discussions with others about what to include that is new to the garden. A gardening plan makes sense, but spontaneity is important too, and it doesn’t matter if all you have is a sunny patio to start your garden paradise. A collection of different potted pepper plants, for example, will enliven any space with their elegant shapes and fruits. During April and May there are many seedlings that can be propagated in the house. In fact, I start basil—the tender leaves are a treat to eat in April—and snapdragons in early February. As you will probably know, supermarkets and hardware stores sell both vegetable and flower seeds. Right now is the perfect time to buy a selection of seeds, or, better, to use the seeds you have collected from last year’s harvest. If you use open-pollinated varieties, you will have many possibilities to save seeds. This gives you independence from buying what you can instead nurture yourself. Growing garlic is an example of home sustainability. There is never a need to buy garlic again if you save enough bulbs for them to be planted in late October. Right now they are pushing past the leaf mulch to harvest mid-July.
Municipal garden plots offer a wonderful way to explore and hone your skills as a novice gardener, and if you don’t have a lawn or a piece of land to convert into a garden, you may be able to rent a plot. Sherbrooke offers this opportunity. See tinyurl.com/Start-a-community-garden and tinyurl.com/Town-collective-gardens
For years I had a city garden plot and it afforded me many gifts: not only fine vegetables, but also a ready-made community of like-minded and enthusiastic people who shared their experiences. It was always enjoyable to stroll from one plot to the next and observe how other people went about growing their food—there are, as it turns out, a dozen ways to trellis your peas—and it’s a great way to make new friends.
There are other ways to find some space to grow flowers and vegetables. It is possible, as I found out, to cut out some of the asphalt leading up to your house and plant a tree or flowers in the space opened up. Simply laying some garden fabric on top of the area, framing it with wood and adding soil and compost makes for a successful area to grow flowers that help out butterflies and other insects. (There is something subversive—as renowned permaculturist Bill Mollison muses above—to the status quo that represents fossil oil, when we get rid of asphalt and free up land for living plants!)
Have a flat roof? Why not put some seasonal planters up there? Ask a neighbour who has too much grass if you can use some of the area to start a garden. Once you begin to look around while walking or cycling, you’ll see the immense opportunities there are for people to convert endless lawns into gardens. Naturally there are farms nearby, and some may be interested in starting up a community garden. Universities are also gearing up to support horticulture. Bishop’s University is now starting a program that teaches agroforestry, agroecology and permaculture; it is also a hands-on endeavour there. In this time of biodiversity loss and climate warming it’s vital that a new generation of students take up horticulture.
More and more cities are allowing front lawns to be converted into flower and vegetable gardens. Toronto and other large cities are loosening up their bylaws to give people the opportunity to have pollinator gardens. No Mow May is catching on in the Eastern Townships, including Sherbrooke, to allow pollinators to have a larger source of flowers to visit. Public parks will defer the first mowing until after May. It is no secret that bee populations in particular are dropping precipitously, so they need all the help we can give them. One Sherbrooke resident who grew a garden facing the street called his action “horticultural disobedience”! So don’t worry about digging up the front lawn to replace it with a garden. People realize that those beautiful flowers are a sign not of your wilful neglect, but of your love for Nature. tinyurl.com/Flowers-on-our-streets
Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, written by Heather Jo Flores, is a wonderful book for self-empowerment. The book was written to celebrate Nature and to inspire us to create new synergies that make for a more compassionate and healthier planet. Visit www.foodnotlawns.com to read it. It tells us, “Lawns use ten times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farmland. These pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides run off into our groundwater and evaporate into our air, causing widespread pollution and global warming, and greatly increasing our risk of cancer, heart disease, and birth defects. In addition, the pollution emitted from a [gasoline] power mower in just one hour is equal to the amount from a car being driven 350 miles.”
Soon a few packets or envelopes of seeds will be rattling in my pockets asking to be sown in the warming earth. Hearing them call out is a joy each springtime. Make it yours too.