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Produce harvested from an urban garden. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)
Produce harvested from an urban garden. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)

Stephen Quinn

Digging the joys of urban gardening Add to ...

A couple of weeks ago, I became an urban farmer. My crops are contained in an eight-foot by three-foot box I built myself out of cedar planks that I got someone else to saw into appropriately sized pieces. I got the plans from a website. It felt very manly using an electric drill to screw it all together. My neighbours appeared moderately impressed. They filed past, smiling and nodding their approval. They complimented me on my workmanship and said things like, “I didn't know you were so handy.”

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It took about 20 bags of topsoil. I'm not sure where the phrase “dirt cheap” comes from, but turns out it's not that cheap. All told – material, soil and seedlings – I'm into this for about 300 bucks now.

My crops so far: strawberries, corn, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss chard, string beans and pumpkins. I'm still waiting for the carrots to sprout. (They appear not to be for sale as seedlings, but then, what do I know?)

Drawing on the satisfaction of the first box, I built a second box for herbs.

Both sit pressed into a bed of crunchy river rock in a narrow strip beside our half-a-house. It's warm and it gets lots of sun and I always figured it would be a good place to grow things.

Growing vegetables is something I've been meaning to do for a long time and something I thought I would never actually do. I was never the urban gardening type and, to be truthful, never understood people who were. All of that effort, and for what exactly? A few bunches of carrots here, a handful of cherry tomatoes there, and some zucchini, which no one actually likes. The sort of stuff I could pick up at Norman's Fruit and Salad for pocket change. I sort of understood the first-generation immigrants who allowed their sunny yards to be consumed by rows of tomatoes, tangles of peas and grape vines, but that was Old Country stuff. It grounded them, I figured.

The community gardeners with their hand-painted driftwood signs and compost heaps? Forget it.

A decade ago, when then-city councillor Tim Louis was going on about “food security” and “food sustainability,” I sat in the row of council chambers reserved for media and tried to quietly will myself unconscious. Yes, I'm quite sure I was there at the very moment the City of Vancouver constituted its first “food policy task force” and, like so many things in life, I failed to recognize the significance of the event, even as I lived it.

I avoided farmers markets and to this day question the regulatory authority by which they are able to issue their own currency, which incidentally is made out of wood.

What changed? What has turned me into a person who suddenly notices frost warnings in the forecast, and who now wants to rush home from work so I may lovingly tend to my precious plants? Who has $90 in wooden currency in a bowl on top of the fridge? I'm not certain. Mid-life? Fear of death? It could be the ambient bullying of a decade's worth of propaganda labelling me a planet killer because I drive a car to the supermarket on Saturday mornings. It could be that conditions are exactly right.

Mostly, though, I think it's my kids and the inexplicable joy they exhibit when pressing a seed into a pot of spongy, damp soil. The sheer awe of watching that seed sprout, then when it's strong enough, moving it outdoors where it must fend on its own.

Beyond that, there's the satisfaction of growing my own, and the anticipation of what something might actually taste like.

This week, I phoned Mr. Louis to tell him what I had done. “I always knew you were salvageable,” he told me.

When I questioned the value-for-money part of the equation, that a $300 investment might, if I'm lucky, amount to a couple of side salads, he said: “If everyone had a small plot, imagine what the aggregate would be.”

I've listened to enough American roots music to know about the misfortune that might occur between the harrow and the harvest. The rain will come, and with it, possibly blight. There could be a drought. Or worse.

Still, I'll have my garden.

And, maybe, a $300 zucchini.



Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn

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