No engines revved and no flags dropped, but, somehow, the garden race is on. In downtown Toronto, I am surrounded by community gardens and school gardens. On the weekend, one neighbour, whose beautiful wildflowers grow alongside her vegetables, gave us some of her grass (you know you’re getting older when ornamental is the kind of grass being passed around). Another neighbour spends every weekend at her parents’ 100-acre farm outside the city. “I don’t buy a vegetable from now until fall,” she says.
Then there’s us, with our lawn as blotchy as a teenager’s face and a few roses left behind by the house's previous, 90-year-old owner. When we bought our place years ago, the tiny garden was in full bloom. As apartment dwellers who hadn’t touched any non-vacuumable dirt in years, we were in awe. Yet a condition of the purchase was that the deceased owner’s family could take many plants as sentimental tokens. Despite our annual efforts to plant and pull and replant and water, the garden never really recovered from the pillage.
So our garden is just kind of okay, which feels like failure. Who doesn’t long to be recognized as the steward of the enviably fecund front yard? Ours is not the weed-ridden rot of the art-student renters to the north, nor the carefully tended Eden of the retirees. But being an average gardener in June is a little like being a Rockette with a bum knee at Christmas.
According to Statistics Canada figures from 2005, 11 per cent of Canadians aged 30 and over spent some time working on a lawn or garden every day. The sale of garden and lawn products rose $600-million from 2002 to 2006, to an estimated $2-billion per year. The Atlantic provinces are the greenest of thumbs, while Quebec and B.C. are the least, probably because of the density of apartments.
A thriving garden isn’t just a status symbol; in gardening, the process is as significant as the result. Gardening has been used to treat patients with mental-health issues; a recent study found that a bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae and common in soil can activate a group of neurons that produce serotonin, the brain’s happiness chemical.
Other research shows that gardening, like many activities that bring people closer to nature in a contemplative way, can stir up “eudaimonic” happiness – feelings of personal meaning and inner peace. “Hedonic” happiness – the gratification that comes from immediate pleasures – is easier to find but matters less; it’s the kind you experience simply by pouring a good drink or buying those shoes you lust after. (Imagine, then, the ecstasy achieved by a really good glass of wine in a garden you grew yourself. Nirvana.)
Downtown, with a backyard the size of a wading pool, we keep trying for colour, coveting the Wordsworthian garden that’s both beautiful and highly symbolic – sacred and innocent, wildness tamed. Of course, gardens are also entirely practical, being the things that will literally feed you.
These days, in fact, the non-veggie garden looks greedy and outdated. As the locavore movement gains traction, vegetable gardens are heralded as a societal cure-all, warding off obesity and all the un-green aspects of commercial farming bringing families and communities together, getting us back in touch with how our food is produced. In her book Grow the Good Life, gardening blogger Michele Owens writes, “Thanks to my garden, I can take a small stand against everything I find witless, lazy and ugly in our civilization.”
This woman really hates my hydrangea.
Gardening zealots have right on their side – who sees a bright future in a Styrofoam-packaged pepper? But I realize why our garden is so-so, and why that’s okay: It’s the right size for our full life. When I get down in our patch of dirt, it can feel healing, productive. But then I forget about the garden and it goes neglected because, for all its spiritual potential, gardening is also labour, a time-sucking reality that the back-to-the-land fantasy clouds over (but which can hit modern women especially hard).
In 2010, Peggy Orenstein wrote a New York Times Magazine article linking gardening, canning and sewing – all the Little House-style pursuits of certain contemporary moms – to a new kind of feminism: femivorism.
“Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfilment that drove women into the work force in the first place,” she noted. Hopefully it’s true that the downtown Type A moms ferociously gardening and setting up their backyard apiaries aren’t just engaged in competitive parenting but reaching for some genuine emotional satisfaction.
But if you’re a working mom (or dad) who can’t, don’t or won’t grow dinner, does it mean you’re a witless, lazy citizen? Let’s hope the green arts don’t become another weapon in the mommy wars. No one should feel cast out of the garden.
Katrina Onstad's second novel is called Everybody Has Everything . Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad