Galadriel Watson is a writer living in British Columbia and author of the book Extreme Abilities: Amazing Human Feats and the Simple Science Behind Them.
There were seven rows of strawberry plants I’d tended for years, which gave me plump red berries that filled our freezer year-round. There were chives growing in abundance, one of the few plants that thrived without maintenance. There were leeks, persisting despite recent neglect. Our veggie garden provided us with peas, carrots, radishes, basil, beans, lettuce, garlic and more. And yesterday, I watched my husband mow it all down. With glee.
We’re not gardeners. Once upon a time, we thought we were, or at least could be. After about a decade and a half of trying, we recently admitted defeat.
The journey from hope to failure began in a small Calgary backyard. In a bed about five square feet, we squished in a range of veggies, from spinach to squashes. They flourished, helping feed our family of four. We were excited. It felt like we were playing at what humans are meant to be – capable of growing their own food. We were dirt-under-our-fingernails, live-off-the-land pioneers. Or at least we could supplement the supermarket groceries that tiniest bit.
Even in this insignificant way, we were teaching our children to be wholesome. This is where food really comes from. This is the effort it takes to get it. This is what it tastes like fresh. I remember my own mother growing Swiss chard along our townhouse fence. I was passing this nourishing experience along to my own kids.
We then moved to a village in British Columbia’s Kootenays. Here, people have serious gardens. They can pretty much live off the land and speak about their produce with pride. In spring, it rains; in summer, there’s heat and sun. Plants are destined to get big fast. Compared with our wee bed in dry-as-a-bone Calgary, gardening would be a breeze.
We started small, maybe 10 by 10. We mounded the bed with bagged soil from the hardware store. We planted and the plants grew and we draped mesh over them to protect them from nibbling deer.
We were buoyed by our success. The next spring, we thought bigger. Not big, like some people have around here. About 24 square feet, fully fenced from critters.
Things grew well. Eventually, too well. The constant tending was back-breaking. We grew much more than we could eat – I learned to can and bought a food dehydrator, but the results weren’t particularly tasty and lingered in the cupboard. The kids didn’t like vegetables – they rarely ate what I picked and refused to help with the hands-on work. (So much for being wholesome.) While my husband excelled at the springtime prep, he didn’t do much of the everyday maintenance. When we went on holiday in the summer, we had to worry about who would keep the veggies alive. We picked all the carrots one year and they rotted in the fridge. We picked all the garlic one year and they turned mildewy black.
Mostly, I was a strawberry farmer. The few plants we had spread their runners. They spread and spread and spread. In season, every day, I picked buckets of strawberries. I washed them. I cut the slug holes out of them. My husband and I ate what we could, but the kids weren’t keen. The rest I packed into our freezer. Pretty much only my husband would deplete these throughout the year, using them for smoothies.
Even more prolific than the strawberries were the weeds. We live on a rectangle of lawn at the edge of nature. The grass and the wild plants wanted our garden back.
Last year, we let the weeds win. It wasn’t an easy call, but other than the strawberries, our garden was diminishing in production anyhow. The carrots weren’t getting plump. The lettuce didn’t swell. Even the radishes, which have always been easy to grow, no longer impressed. We had added soil and manure. We had watered. We had weeded (sort of). What else could we do? What else did we want to do?
We ignored the grass as it grew taller than the strawberries. All turned crisp and brown. The things that did manage to grow, I didn’t bother to pick. What a relief!
I still believe in the wholesome life. So what if we don’t grow our own food? We have a great farmers market that enables us to eat from the plots of people just down the way – people who love what they’re doing and are good at it. I’ll happily support them.
Postmow, our garden is now mostly crunchy grass. It’ll be a great spot to build a patio. This summer, instead of grabbing my gardening gloves and tools, I plan to be wholesome by grabbing a book.