The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
I love gardens in the spring for the promise they evoke, the perennial peek into the future, the hope for a beautiful and healthy bloom. This year’s garden maintenance aroused memories of growing up on Kostis Avenue with its gardens, vegetable and flower, the work to make them flourish, and the satisfaction in the accomplishments.
Dad’s affinity to vegetable gardens is a direct by-product of his upbringing. He constantly spoke of the farmer’s fields in many a recall of his youth. The family home which was once on the edge of town is now situated in just another crowded section of Tilburg. You could not imagine Dad’s stories while standing in front of 16 Herstalsestraat today. I was able to find only one photograph of Dad’s childhood home. It shows three young children, Tante Jo, Dad, and Uncle Gert (the youngest) sitting on the ground, in a field, with the row houses in the background; the end unit was theirs. The front door opened onto the field – not a sidewalk or a road or a path.
A second picture shows the Decock family posing amongst the vegetables in what appears to be the fields outside their house. When you look carefully at both photos, you can see the smoke stacks from the textile factories in the background where my Opa worked. The appeal of Kostis Avenue, for my Dad at least, seems more obvious (https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/931); a natural inclination to vegetables and gardens was nurtured in this semi-rural experience.
My mother’s upbringing was decidedly small-town. An understanding of her experience is drawn from Uncle Nico’s book, Pa vertel eens. In it he describes the community and their family home amidst the shoe factories which dominated Kaatsheuvel. The one where his father worked, “bordered behind the neighbour’s house, almost to our garden. The machines of the factory, as in all shoe factories, were powered by a steam engine. The exhaust pipes of that device hung almost above our garden. In the morning at half past seven the puffing started and that lasted until six in the evening and on Saturday until one o’clock.”
In spite of the surrounding conditions, the cultivating of a garden was paramount for survival. “We had a very deep garden in Hoofdstraat, perhaps forty meters deep. At the front of the place some flowers were sown and, as in several Catholic gardens, at the beginning of the garden there was a Maria cave, a replica of the Lourdes cave…..In the early spring, starting in the nine beautiful days of February, when the sun was shining nicely, the garden was dug, the seedbeds prepared for carrots, [turnip greens], endive, kale, lettuce and whatever else could be sown.” Summer months involved canning and preserving the vegetables, and for harvesting the fruit from the pear tree. A successful garden meant you were self sufficient for longer periods of time. Food gaps were filled in by the farmers parading through the village streets with their crops. For Mom, therefore, the small production of food and the concomitant planting of flowers were part and parcel of a family homestead.
When Mom and Dad purchased that first home on Kostis Avenue on the outskirts of London, Ontario in 1963, they immediately installed a vegetable garden at the back of the lot, next to the farmer’s field. Like many an immigrant family, the garden was intended to provide a less expensive food option.
The vegetable garden was a yearly outcome of routine but necessary, laborious tasks, starting with tilling the soil. Joe Klassens, who worked the field at the end of our yard, would dump a load of manure which my Dad would spade into the soil, one row at a time – dig out a line, shovel in the manure, then turn the dirt on top to create a new row, tediously repeating until he reached the other end. Eventually Dad received a roto-tiller as a retirement gift from his 3M colleagues to relieve him of the arduous shoveling each spring.
As a kid we would eat vegetables directly from the garden – pull a carrot out of the ground, wipe it on the grass to remove the dirt, eat to the stem which was tossed into the farmer’s field; pick beans from the plants and pop them raw into our mouths; find a small cucumber, rub off the small prickles and chomp on the vegetable without peeling. The garden included onions, tomatoes, corn on occasion, cauliflower, kale, beets, and lettuce.
My parents purchased a very large chest freezer specifically to store the labours of the summer in preparation for the meals of the winter. The freezer was so deep a person would teeter perilously over the edge, risking a fall just to grab the last bag of peas stationed at the bottom. Alternatively, you would tempt frost bite stirring around all the parts from the half-cow searching for those elusive carrots.
I don’t recall how the choice for vegetables was determined; it was probably a joint effort. The flower garden, or at least the selection, was largely my mother’s domain. Surprisingly – maybe not because she always preferred something new – Mom’s choices were predominantly annuals. In some years there would be bulbs, but seldom tulips, ironically. My parents claimed the shorter springs in Canada meant their quick departure, not sustaining the bloom as long as in the Netherlands. They did not see the value in a very brief appearance.
The garden changed and flourished throughout the years, growing in abundance, trees added to fill in the backyard. There was an expectation, even at a very young age, for everyone to be involved in the grounds keeping of the property. I recall, in particular, weeding the original driveway, scrapping my knuckles against the stones and blocks of concrete, respite for only a couple weeks until a return engagement with the irritants. When beans were needed for dinner, someone would fetch a batch; we provided extra hands for harvesting; we rotated turns cutting the grass or clipping the hedges; and we contributed to overturning the soil in the vegetable garden. The gardens were communal both in terms of the necessary labour to maintain and in the preparation for the freezer. On numerous evenings we would sit around the kitchen table, methodically cutting up the beans or pealing the blanched tomatoes, while laughing over the events of the day, a collective effort where everyone contributed. The work was a lesson in retaining pride of ownership. My parents’ example served us well throughout our careers and in the maintenance of our own homes.
In later years, with everyone gone and the living at least an hour-and-a-half away, all with their own families and properties, the challenge to care for the yard increased. The vegetable garden also became too big for the needs of just two people so my parents started bundling “care” packages for someone to take back home. With age and diminishing interest, many of the flower gardens were turned to grass, something they could hire the neighbour’s young boy to mow. The glory of those early gardens are now admired only in the realm of a handful of pictures.
Olga and I have continued in our families’ traditions, at least with regards to flower gardening. Her parents valued both the beauty and practicality of cultivating vegetables and flowers, borne from a peasant background in Ukraine, fueled by pride and a desire for normalcy (https://wordpress.com/post/henrydecock.org/687). Olga’s mother worked her gardens until the age of 98 before leaving her home a year later. Unlike our parents, however, we did not engage in the growing of vegetables at our various homes; rather, we focused on enhancing our life with the creation of beauty.
The building of a garden is a form of art, the ground a canvas for colour and texture, attaining the right mixture, selecting plants to ensure a constant display throughout the season. I prefer perennials because they illustrate the full circle of life – birth, growth, blossom, death – and all the aspects it entails – nurturing, trimming, dividing, fertilizing. Annuals have a place, filling in temporary gaps and completing the strategically placed pot. However, I consider them as fulfilling an instant gratification and being disposable – buy in the spring, plop them in the soil, allow to grow in the summer, die with first frost, dispose before winter, and purchase again next year. Art should be more long-lasting.
We are not getting any younger and yet our gardens at the cottage continue to expand. I worry sometimes we are transplanting the urban into the rural (our cottage neighbour refers to it as High Park after one of the same name in West Toronto) and creating additional work. I view our efforts as an expression of ourselves, an illustration of our pride of ownership, a reflection of our efforts, an exercise in longevity.
Gardens are inherently honest. There is no shorthand method for success; you get down on your knees, in the dirt, pull the weeds one by one, gather the leaves and pine needles, wipe away the old growth of last year, dig the hole for the next. Olga and I learned that lesson from our parents, from their lives and their work. We have faith it will endure with our own children.
The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It’s the only return that you expect
The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen.The Garden – Rush. Lyrics: Neil Peart. Music: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson
The title of this post is from the liner notes for the album, Clockwork Angels. June 2012. It can be found at rush.com