Thursday, 23 May 2013

Practical garden whimsies

The house across the street has a front-yard planter that's shaped like a little wishing well. The planter portion is white with green trim, and the well's roof is shingled in grey - just like the house behind it. It's the kind of front decor that where one might expect to find a trickling pool, or delicate flowers of various heights with a good contrast of colour, tended, perhaps, by a well-painted garden gnome. This particular well, however, is overflowing with rhubarb.

It's the third spring in a row that planter and its abundance of pink stems and wide green leaves has graced the view from my front window. I'm still tickled by the sight of it. There's something daringly eccentric about filling something as whimsical as a wishing well with a plant as practical as rhubarb. Provided one wished for tart, pink, dessert fodder, and sprinkled the well's depths with water rather than throwing in coins, one's wish is nearly bound to come true. All other wishes shall be answered with rhubarb, like a jammed magic eight ball, stuck forever on "ask again later" or "have a nice day."

Front garden edibles tend to get a bad rap. It's as if growing food instead of flowers is somehow unsightly. Granted, I'd be less than excited if a walk around my neighbourhood included homes obscured behind rows of corn, or having all the bare dirt required for hilling potatoes blown into my stroller. What I have seen, however, has been delightful, if a little bit cheeky: zucchinis in a flowerbed, artichokes poking out in rock gardens (that one was in a book - I have no idea if they grow here), and, of course, sunflowers never go amiss, edible seeds or not. Different plants need differing amounts of sun and shade; depending on which direction a gardener's house faces, compounded with the placement of trees, tall bushes, and other buildings, the best spot for beans and tomatoes isn't necessarily going to be in the backyard. Surely vegetable gardens mustn't be restricted to the gardeners on one side of any given street. Such segregation calls for a quiet revolution: raspberries are bushes just the same as roses. Why must they be sent to the back?

I am currently engaged in my own little 'round-the-house gardening. The perfect place for most of sun-loving herbs and vegetables we'd like to plant happens to have a garage on top of it. The pad behind would also do, but ripping up concrete is out of the home-improvement budget for the time being. When we left our rental house to buy our own, we also lost our enormous garden. I don't miss turning and weeding that hard rich clay, nor do I wish that all my Saturdays from May through October were again consumed with planting and thinning, then tending and picking - never mind the snapping and blanching (we had a tremendous bean crop) - but I do miss wandering out back to pick a salad, or basil for the pasta, or chives for an omelet. And our current yard could use some more green space.

Last year, I borrowed a few pots and lined our south-facing pad with sunflowers on the hopes of cooling the concrete. It didn't work, but I did learn the importance of regular watering in container gardens - that dense deep clay plot of yesteryear held moisture like nobody's business. Plastic pots on a concrete pad? Not so much. This year, armed with daily smart phone reminders, I'm trying container gardening again. Over the last few days, between the wind and the rain, the kidlets and I planted the makings of many a salad: tomatoes and basil on the south side in full sun, facing our next neighbour's driveway, lettuce, parsley, mint, and cilantro on the partially sunny west pad behind the house.

The chives were special - given their hardy perennial nature, I wanted to put them in one of the few pots that we actually own so that the kids can divide them as part of their inheritance. Sadly, the one big terracotta I had tagged for chiveliness met a bad end: my littlest garden helper had had so much fun filling it with potting soil that he decided to dump it and start again, breaking the pot in the process (I had left it, of course, on the concrete). Fortunately - both for my love of chives and the mores of poetic justice - our house did come with one other little planter: a plastic one shaped like a great white swan whose back is just waiting to be filled with flowers. It just happens to be sitting on our front stoop.

And so, fellow front-yards-for-food warrior in the house across the street, I see your wishing well of rhubarb. I raise you a swan full of chives. May the first to plant a raspberry hedge win.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Definitions of spring

On the very first nice day of spring Allashua said, "I'm going to go fishing. I'm going to go fishing in the ocean. I'm going to go fishing in the cracks in the ice."
-Robert N. Munsch & Michael Kusugak, A Promise is a Promise

Munschworks 3  has been making the rounds in our reading nooks again. This time, it's at my son's request, which means I have the pleasure of hearing a three-year-old's version of 'Qallupilluit' on a regular basis. The last story in this particular collection is A Promise is a Promise, and, these days, its opening lines get me every time: "on the very first nice day of spring" (emphasis mine). In the Canadian arctic, where the story is set, it would appear that the "very first nice day of spring" is a good time to put on your parka, walk past the snow drifts piled nearly to your roof, and go ice-fishing. Should some mythological creature pull you underwater and spit you back out again, however, there is a real threat of collapsing frozen to the snow before you reach your home.

It's a far cry from my idea of a nice spring day, but then, I could say the same for finding a crocus. I have nothing against crocuses, per say - I'm sure they're very nice flowers - it's just that I've never seen one outside the frame of a photograph. Wikipedia tells me it's because I live on the third of the planet where they do not grow, yet every year, or so it seems to my begrudged ears, I hear mention of someone elsewhere awaiting their return. The bloom seems to bring that warm fuzzy feeling that, yes, it really is spring. Much as I can empathize with longing for the end of winter (I've been at it for at least a month), if it takes a crocus sighting to prove that it's spring, then I'm afraid that season never graces this climate. Nevertheless, there still seems to be a gap between the lands of winter and summer, so we may as well call it 'spring', and, much like Munsch and Kusugak, make our own definition of what it means. Last Friday, I remembered what it felt like to finally shake off the shackles of winter, so I've composed a temporary telling of my own. Next year, I hope to be less suspicious of precociously nicer weather, but this year, this is what it took for me to believe in spring:

On the very first nice day of spring, I awoke before my alarm to see brilliant light coming through the cracks between the window sill and the black-out blind. It was 6:30am, and the sun had beaten me out of bed by a good half-hour. My daughter, however, had not followed suit, and I'm afraid the push for the bus took a bit of a fight, despite the sunshine. No hair-do, no dawdling, just please eat and go. This morning, at least, I could grant her request for runners, so there was one battle less than there might have been. Old snow still hunkered down in the shadows, but it was finally dry enough elsewhere to forgo the boots that had long outworn their welcome.

Bus caught, I got my own breakfast and checked my phone. My weather app promised temperatures in the teens, but, as it had been lying to me for weeks, I didn't put much stock in the afternoon forecast. It wasn't 'til three hours later, upon leaving the house with my son, that I discovered my jacket was unnecessary. Then, I began to believe. And there, along the crack where the south-facing pad met the foundation was quack-grass, all new and green and a good three inches high. That was not there last I checked; could winter finally be leaving?

Our errands passed quickly, sun-roof cracked while driving, exchanging knowing grins with strangers in the parking lot. Why yes, our eyes seemed to say, I'm also in only a sweater, and not all under-dressed. The budding garden centre construction no longer seemed pointless, but practical. The ground still may be brown and barren, but Edmontonians will plant flowers again. Our winter tires kissed the pavement in an unseemly fashion - usually, they'd be off by early April, but this year, the combination of bustling life and endless snow had my husband putting off the chore.  
Come the noon hour, my kindergartener bounded of the bus, still floating on the thrill of an extra-long recess - in t-shirts, no less! Amidst lunch prep, I checked the weather again: it was twenty degrees Celsius, twenty above. From famine to feast on the tail of a southerly wind. Once bellies were filled, I sent both kidlets outside; they took my suggestion of skipping coats with glee.  I watched them run while washing up dishes, poking with sticks. They laid down on their backs to watch the willow, finally bare, through their sunglasses, heedless of the dust left from months of baling out the low spot on the garage that lay directly beneath them.

I thought to myself, I want to go raking. I want to go rake in the backyard. I want to pull back the layers of sticks and leaves and dirt, and find the green. The kids caught on quick to my new little "game", and soon there were three collectors of sticks, bending and giggling and commenting on the variety. "Let's talk about them in French," said my Fancy Nancy enthusiast, so we did. Though neither of us could remember the word for 'stick', we still had a ball. We dusted off garden tools - plastic for them, metal for me - and raked for all we were worth. And there was green; tentative, short, and sparse in places, but evidence of life all the same.

Two glorious hours later, spent from our impulse yard work, we enjoyed an impulse snack - an outdoor one for the first time in months. Seated in long-neglected camp chairs my daughter wrestled from the shed, we surveyed our handiwork: the weather was closer to summer, winter's snow still lingered by the fence, but between the lack of brown leaves and evidence of grass greening, it was the very first nice day of spring.