I did not go in search of yogic peace or political enlightenment when I began growing vegetables. I merely wanted free lunch. But as my Toronto garden took on proportions that my downtown friends jokingly call "Saskatchewan," a humbling truth set in. I was not growing vegetables so much as they were growing me.
I've learned a lot from 60 square metres of dirt and manure. About patience, tolerance, communal sharing, nature's invincibility, the honest rewards of back-bending toil and the tastiest way to lead a more environmentally benign existence. I've also learned that Rub A535 comes in Dual-Action Cream.
These epiphanies did not come without a struggle. I first had to digest the depressing truth that I would not be able to grow arugula, the ultimate no-brainer crop and my favourite food. Arugula taught me perhaps the most important lesson of all: that Satan is a flea beetle.
Were it not for that tiny black pest, I might have devoted my entire property, including the useless front lawn, to nature's most perfect, peppery green. (I once had fanciful daydreams of harvesting lunch with my push mower and leaf rake.) But the hopping bugs foiled the plan.
In some gardens, flea beetles are a benign force, merely carving out pinpoint holes in bitter crucifers like buckshot. In mine, they are so voracious that they quickly outstrip their own food supply, attacking even the youngest shoots when the big ones are gone until nothing's left but scorched earth. I have a theory: My flea beetles may be Italian.
Yes, I tried everything in the organic playbook to suppress their numbers, including tilling over roots and leaves in autumn to destroy their winter habitat, but no dice. These are resourceful bugs and I suspect they have learned to scurry from my shovel in November to multiply in the haven of my neighbour's yard as they plot the following spring's shock-and-awe offensive.
So, I was forced to expand my horizons, and my salad repertoire. Today I grow roughly 100 heirloom-tomato plants, including stunning neon-orange Nebraska Weddings and beautifully striped Black Zebras and Berkeley Tie Dyes, as well as about 30 other assorted crops. There's Tuscan kale, rainbow chard, red dandelion, candy-striped Chioggia beets, tongue-searing Black Spanish radishes and five types of garlic, to name just a few. This year I'll be broadening my chili-pepper assortment to eight and devoting more ground to various lettuces, such as Lolita (burgundy-coloured and frilly), Martha Stewart Buttercrunch, Little Gem Romaine, Red Freckles and frisée.
You won't find most of those treats among the offerings at parking-lot garden centres, which specialize in easy-to-grow hybrids that yield supermarket-style, blemish-free produce. Like many fanatic gardeners, I grow virtually everything from seed, sourced from various organic suppliers, including Toronto's excellent Urban Harvest as well as a globetrotting girlfriend who perhaps should have consulted Canada's Seeds Act before importing foreign plant matter in her luggage. I also collect and dry my own, all carefully organized in dozens of No. 3 coin envelopes from Staples.
Most gardeners don't have the luxury of starting 400 plants indoors in the dead of February. It takes space and time, of course, but it also takes something sadly all-too-rare in Toronto, a property uncluttered by trees. You need to hit those infant plants with serious ultraviolet rays the moment they germinate, and it's impossible to do that in a "sunroom" shaded by precious maples and elms. My sunroom is located on the second floor and faces south, with nothing near it to block the sky except the occasional flock of migrating Canada geese.
Which brings me to one of those teaching points. Most city folk with yards prefer to trade sunlight for shade and are content instead to burn gas to shop for week-old, trucked-in produce. That's understandable, but I'd rather do without the trees (and car) and be surrounded by a vine and vegetable forest. Perhaps I'm making a virtue of cheapskate economics, but what started as a plan to skimp on groceries now feels more to me like an ideological imperative. I'm trying to commit as best I can to a 100-metre diet, born of newfound awareness at how much a backyard plot can yield. In summer and autumn I literally could avoid stepping off my property for months and not perish from malnutrition, though I must admit that a pig or two would be nice for the sake of protein – and for the company.
My next-door neighbour, Eric, the suspected flea-beetle host, tends a similarly large garden and feels the same way. He's from Grenada and likes to grow things for soups and stews, like corn, okra and zucchini. He also sometimes delivers his excess bounty to a local soup kitchen.
Eric and I have established an informal trading system. He gets some of my tomato seedlings and hipster lettuces and I get unfettered access to his strawberries and zucchini flowers, which would otherwise cost me serious coin to buy at a ritzy downtown store. Joe, two doors down, brings me onions and banana peppers and I keep him ankle-deep in parsley.
Growing from seed gives me pride, because it's challenging, but it has also led me down the soiled path to self-righteousness, I must confess. For me there's little thrill in carting home fully established plants from the garden centre to stick in the ground and blast with a hose every three days. That's sort of like adopting a Yale graduate and taking credit for rearing a successful lawyer, or like assembling an Ikea bookshelf and calling yourself a carpenter. The hard work's been done by somebody else.
Seeds cultivated in trays take daily, sometimes hourly, attention with a spray bottle. If the soil becomes too wet, you get mould. Too dry and you shoot blanks, to borrow the fertility-clinic jargon. My seedlings are, in a sense, my babies, which also makes early-spring vacations almost impossible, unless I can find a trustworthy sitter willing to work the spray bottle.
Another downside of growing from seed, besides the annoying self-righteousness, is that it renders you hyper-protective. Before my neighbours to the west moved away two years ago, their son had taken to playing soccer and basketball almost daily in the back of our shared driveway. Nice kid, but like most 10-year-olds he had a poor grasp of statistical probability. When the ball would bounce – with catastrophic regularity – into my garden, I would lose not just another meal but six months of hard work and hope. I had brought those lifeforms into this world, after all, and I genuinely felt emotional pain each time their lives were cut short by a miscalculated corner kick.
The boy couldn't possibly have fathomed the depth of my anguish, so I always accepted his polite apologies and let him play on the way kids have a right to, tossing the ball back with resignation. "No problem, Diogo," I'd say. "You can buy me a big fence when you grow up to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo."
It was my yogic peace offering.