I met Megan in her beautiful garden this summer on a gorgeous day in July. She’s someone I “knew” through her blog She’s a maker and a gardener, organizes for her community and shares what she learns in many ways. I got to meet her in her garden this summer as part of “Summer of Sustainability Garden Tour” she organized with help from the Neighbourhood Small Grant program.
Megan sent along the following story to share with the Caring Community Project. She writes about her family, her childhood that took her to her family homesteads in the Shushwap, BC and her time in those wild gardens.
I invite you to head through the garden gate and explore her story. In it she shares a secret, one that connects to one of my dreams for a more compassionate community for children. What dreams does Megan’s story awaken in you?
A history of growing
By Megan Adam
Raspberries. All summer I’ve been waiting for my new patch to fruit and ripen. First year planted, I understand it may not happen, but this was a hot summer and all sorts of extraordinary things went on in my west coast garden. Besides, my neighbour promises these are “ever-bearing” from early summer to fall. Did the vines go in early enough to give over a mouthful, a handful of my desires? I water them often, rejoice in the blossoms unfurling before dropping off to reveal the nascent berries beneath.
Anticipation. My fingers extending to the sweet, velvet thimbles that roll off when ready, their centres a perfect entrance for the tip of the tongue to split the berry in two before chewing the rest of it down and starting on the next. Not so juicy as to stain hands, no pit or rind to get rid of – just a few thorns to bypass. Every winter dreaming of the first days of raspberries since my early secret forays into my great-grandmother Leslie’s garden.
Not far down the dirt road from my family’s cabin, my great-grandparents’ house slumped on the shores of Shuswap Lake. Paint long worn to the russet of summer’s dust, an old icebox stood doorless on a back porch screened in wire tatters.
By the time I discovered that place in tow of my older cousins, became aware of who had lived there, my great- grandmother had already been dead twenty years. While we kids immediately figured a way into the house and made frequent explorations into rotting rooms, it was the derelict backyard that really captivated.
Under the shade of the giant walnut tree and among grasses so tall I was invisible crouched among them, two things grew in abandon: mint and raspberries. The fragrant mint I stripped from the stalks, rubbing the leaves on my hands for scent before collecting pocketfuls to take home and add to my mother’s lemonade.
The raspberries, however, I consumed only there among my ancestors’ ghosts. Still growing against the frames my great-grandfather had pounded in decades before, these bushes were prodigious despite there being no one around to prune the old canes back. Bored, or angry with my taunting cousins, I would slip away to that house, taking a book and disappearing into the shade of the tree and grasses, gorging myself on raspberries and solitude.
When the house was finally torn down in my late teens (a fire hazard they said), it wasn’t the old dwelling full of mouse droppings I mourned but the razing of the berry patch and nut tree. What a waste it seemed. If you were going to tear down a house why wouldn’t you leave its yard and gardens intact in case the next owner wanted the benefit of a forty-year raspberry garden, an immensely bearing walnut tree, wild edges of mint and lemon balm? But they didn’t, it turned out. The small cabin that eventually graced the lot was bereft with a lawn designed to keep every other growing thing out.
Up the hill from the Leslies’ broken yard my Great-Uncle Ernie had a place, one of the earliest homesteads in the area which littered the ridge. From his cabin you could see up one arm of the lake and down the other, not to mention across the great waterway that defined the area. But what shone in my childhood eyes during those visits was the half-acre garden he kept at the edge of the field, full to bursting with summer delights.
Baby corns sweet like candy off the stalk, beets revealing pinstriped middles when split with my father’s pocketknife, tomato vines staked tall that we could hide among while the adults made the halted conversation of relatives coming together once a year.
And bees! My Uncle kept four hives, once allowing us to watch from a distance as he donned his suit and pulled trays of golden comb out one by one for harvest.
I was eleven when my Uncle Ernie’s bush plane disappeared for good behind a stand of trees, leaving his homestead entangled in a legal battle which took many years to unwind. Again, us kids had free access to his property as it mouldered away without his constant care. The beavers finally got their way and flooded the field with their overgrown dam, the locked one-room cabin adopted a family of squirrels who had gotten in through the chinks on the roofline.
Only the garden gained in his absence. Going wild over the years, self-sowing in that hot interior climate so at any time during those summers I could climb the hill to gather monster-sized carrots and cross-pollinated squashes.
A huge and important secret – that this garden continued to flourish away from the nurture of people. That food came up all by itself year after year. Certainly that growing wasn’t organized and the weeds grew as great as the cornstalks in some corners. But dig around a little and there was a potato, some purple radishes, edible greens that made up half the weeds.
Once the will was finally settled, several years after the accident, my inheriting cousin came with logging machinery to take the edges of the forest that ringed the place. Somehow it was cheaper to level the whole property than leave the center alone. The gardens, the cabin, the cattle fields all chewed and turned under by the metal jaws and claws.
A couple of years afterwards, around the age of twenty, I went back there, walked up the rutted road with my father to see that the only growing thing on that fertile, sunny piece was thistle and fireweed, the land’s scrubby attempt to heal itself after so great an assault. The only signs of the creek, buried beneath the churned earth and woody debris were a few hopeful springs which had emerged along the lay of former fields.
I could go on about the gardens I grew up in and how they are all gone now, how economy trumps life, how the urban world has no place for the kitchen gardens that sustained much of my family over hard winters. But when I look around my East Vancouver neighbourhood I am inspired despite these losses, to see the self-sufficiency of the past continuing to exist here.
Italian, Portugese, Chinese gardeners who have lived in their homes for decades, practically farm their urban lots with fig trees growing over rooftops, chicken coops tucked against the sides of garages, even the occasional beehive. Of course, without the acres of land my forebears had, these avid growers aren’t building labyrinthal corridors of corn and pole beans, but these gardens contain their own secrets just the same.
Capturing my imagination as I peer over fences while walking the alleyways, stopping to survey the latest planting on my morning walk to the bus. I want to know what’s all in there, what’s coming up and out in the fall, in the winter, in the following spring. I spy arbors leading to hidden sitting nooks and wonder what it’s like to inhabit that lush space. It’s a nosiness about the people themselves, as if knowing how they design and grow their backyards will unlock some fundamental element about who they are in the same way I imagined a great- Grandmother I never knew while hiding in her raspberry patch twenty-five years ago.
Although I have gardened in many homes, it’s not until I actually bought a house last year that I really began work on my own grand garden design for the first time. Out of a yard once comprised of badly tended lawn I am carving my own remembrance of those integral spaces which formed my earliest understanding of what a garden could become over time. A place providing both refuge and nourishment, keeping secrets from all but those who venture inside.
My small lot demands ingenuity, overly-raised beds and organic screens to both maximize growing space and create the type of quiet separation from the city I seek. As yet, I am far from the verdant raspberries that went to wild in my mouth as a child. But I can see its beginning. I can see that for each shovelful of earth turned and planted, the promise of privacy and reflection among the weeds and raspberry cane is as much a motivation as any food or flower. And that the hard work of gardening is its own kind of legacy. A lesson. A place we leave behind for others.