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first person

Even if it’s only on her balcony, Oleksandra Budna loves what container gardening does for her sense of well-beingSandi Falconer

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“You smell of tomato plants,” smiled my husband last summer as I stepped back into the apartment, a watering can in one hand, a bowl full of tomatoes, peppers and beans in the other – the day’s harvest from our little garden. Although, I must admit, “garden” is too generous of a term for an odd assortment of pots, baskets, tea cups and tins on our balcony. And while it provides a regular supply of salads, the produce is definitely not sufficient to sustain our family. The work, however, never stops. In the spring, I line up every surface of our apartment with pots of soil. More soil will need to be hauled to the fifth floor, more seeds planted and seedlings replanted. Then there is weeding, pruning, fertilizing and, of course, endless watering. So why bother, some would say, if the fruit of all that labour can be easily purchased in a grocery store. That may be true of herbs and veggies, but the garden produces other yields that no store or market sells.

The therapeutic effects of gardening have been well-documented and horticultural therapy is an established, time-proven practice. Not a day passes by without a new article in my Facebook feed lauding the benefits of gardening to our physical and mental health. Scientists have even discovered bacteria, mycobacterium vaccae, that helps our bodies produce more serotonin. I find this information fascinating, but I don’t need scientific research to demonstrate how gardening makes us happier and healthier. All I have to do is step outside and spend a few minutes under the canopy of my tomato plants, inhaling the aroma of lavender and mint and, yes, a good deal of those happiness bacteria.

Every year, I watch my balcony slowly turn into a green oasis where I can escape with my morning coffee and a good book, a tomato jungle where I get lost in my reveries. I dream of my grandparents’ garden: Endless rows of corn, bean stalks slowly climbing up a wall of neatly cut sticks, a green carpet of potato plants dotted with white and purple flowers, thick-skinned cucumbers hanging off bristly vines like Christmas decorations, straight arrows of garlic and heart-shaped strawberries irresistible in their juicy sweetness. A good portion of my summer vacations were spent helping my grandparents tend the garden: planting, weeding, hoeing, never failing to complain about the sun or back pain, yet unfailingly mesmerized by tiny yellow kernels of corn turning into an infinite maze where I could play hide-and-seek with my friends.

My garden is nothing like that of my grandparents – all of my plants would probably fit into a strawberry patch behind their house. It’s hard to find room for a corn maze or potato field on a concrete ledge in the middle of Toronto. Some things, however, remain unchanged: beans weaving their intricate nets clinging to every available surface, strawberries sunning their round bellies and marigolds. Every year, I make sure to plant marigolds. With their orange and yellow eyes, they watch over me like they did when I was learning to walk holding onto the fence around my grandparents’ garden. They are my connection to the magical garden of my childhood, my time machine.

My garden might be small, but the realization that I nurtured this giant live painting into being makes me feel proud. Rooted in my childhood and born out of my dreams, it grows onto the canvas of brick walls, cement floors and iron railings. It transforms all the time with new lines, shapes and colours appearing every day.

My garden lets my creativity thrive, but it also teaches me patience. No matter how much I will it to grow faster, nature takes its time. It will be days, weeks or even months before the seedlings push their way through, before the flowers bloom, before the first fruit appear and start to ripen. That knowledge doesn’t prevent me from constantly checking on every single pot, sometimes several times a day, imagining the miracle of creation happening in the moist soil, at the tips of a dainty flower, inside a green pod. Every tiny seedling parting the soil or the red of tomatoes peeking through green plants makes my heart sing. No matter how many times I witness this process, fascination with nature’s powers never subsides. If that is not magic, I don’t know what is.

In a world that has little room left for awe and wonder, my garden is a study in miraculous transformations. In a society that glorifies speed, it makes me slow down and smell the flowers, quite often literally. In a system that runs on consumption, gardening is my attempt to reclaim my status as a producer. When a lot of our food travels hundreds or even thousands of miles before getting onto our plate, knowing that the ingredients in our salad were just picked mere metres away is incredibly satisfying.

First and foremost, however, my garden is a project of hope. At this time of year, I sit in the middle of my living room floor surrounded by pots, egg cartons, bags of soils and start planning. I cradle tiny, sometimes almost invisible, specks of seeds in my palm and imagine them as strong, mighty plants. I envision the time when I will be able to bite into a nice juicy tomato right off the vine or open a pod and discover a neat row of speckled purple beans. Even if months of work and uncertain weather stand between these moments and me, I know they will come.

So, at the end of each harvest season, I save some seeds, bring whatever pots I can inside – turning my balcony garden into a window-sill garden – and put the rest away to await their next year’s inhabitants. Most importantly, I pack the smell of tomatoes to carry with me like a protective cloak through the cold of the winter until next spring.

Oleksandra Budna lives in Toronto.