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Where have all the gardens gone?

in Featured/View From The Mainland by

When I was growing up in Cartwright, some people still had gardens. While my parents had a small one with mostly root vegetables, some cabbage and so on, mostly it was my grandparents’ generation that continued the practice. Today there may be a scattered one or two in the community or the summer fishing berths. But for the most part all one can find remaining are old fences and some of the more hardy plants like peas or rhubarb growing where lush gardens once grew.

There used to be a time when people had these gardens as a necessity. They were grown to supplement other forms of subsistence – fishing, hunting, and trapping. This is true in Newfoundland almost as much as it was in Labrador. Just as the biannual move from the interior winter homesteads to the headlands and islands, the incorporation of European vegetable gardening into this Aboriginal cycle was natural and seamless.

Back in the days before plastics and cheap metal, just about everything was made of biodegradable materials

Skins (later incorporating canvas, cloths) into clothes; jute, sinew, and hemp for ropes/string; wooden and bark killicks and floats, boats/canoes, barrels; and so on. Just about everything used in day to day life was biodegradable. So when all of those items were used and darned to the very end(s) of their lives they went to growing the soil or back to the ocean.

When one was finished with the remnants of fish/kelp and other biodegradable material they were put into the frail soil of our coasts.

It is said that the mighty redwood and northern rainforests exist because of the salmon –> bear/bird –> soil cycles that have persisted for millennia. So too the soils have been slowly reclaimed after the last ice age wrenched them from our lands. For a short (geologically speaking) period of time humans were also rapidly increasing the accumulation of soil.

There’s nutrients in them thar soils and people put them there

Today when you visit some of the summer homesteads (especially of the hybrid Inuit-European variety) from Southern Labrador to the Moravian stations in Northern Labrador you can still see patches of lush growth where crafty anthropologists will tell you the same as crafty soil biologists will – there’s nutrients in them thar soils and people put them there.

This will come as no surprise to the readers in Labrador or Newfoundland. In fact, most homesteads in Newfoundland had the same gardens, with the same veggies, and similar compost habits. Many people in Labrador, as well as Newfoundland, once kept livestock and chickens.

What we need is a change in attitude, not a change in latitude

What some may find surprising is the latitude at which people were doing it. Such as the Moravian/Inuit community of Hebron where they grew their year’s supply of vegetables. Now for the many southern readers, Labrador might just seem to be a vast, inhospitable tundra – a veritable Cain’s Land – from which nothing but sparse and stunted things can grow. This is partially true, I’m not very tall.

The solar input isn’t the reason we don’t grow enough of our own food. As farmers in Goose Bay can attest to, you can grow plenty since it is at the same latitude as your precious Dublin. Last I checked they can grow at least a few potatoes (most years anyway). All kidding aside, I once grew corn and other experimental crops in Goose Bay. All we needed to do was get the right crop, and help the soil along. (and perhaps throw in a greenhouse too to keep off the cold Labrador Current air).

If we grow our own food (individually or regionally) three wonderful things happen:

(1) we don’t have to buy it (or as much of it) from out west or south or wherever it comes from. This saves us money to do more things with/for our families and/or diverts money to our local economies. This also happens to save us from producing ridiculous amounts of greenhouse gasses by trucking food from far away.

(2) we can stop diverting precious biomaterial to the dumps. Roughly a THIRD of what we throw in our trash bag every week is compostable. This is shocking considering that soil biologists will tell us we technically don’t have soil in Newfoundland and Labrador, and as I mentioned earlier we can do something about it. Now, don’t worry, if you compost but don’t garden I’m absolutely certain someone will take it off your hands. Further, when we send our compost to the dump two things happen: we get bears, gulls, and in Newfoundland, rats; and we produce greenhouse gasses via anaerobic decay in the dump. Many communities can’t afford to do it anymore.

(3) we (re)gain a sense of  self determination, of pride in ourselves.

It’s not just about the ability to grow our own food. It’s more about food security

Bundled up in the concept of food security, is a little notion called self sufficiency. And packed deep down in that notion is pride – the ability to do it ourselves. What we’ve lost given up by small increments over the past number of decades is the sense of self sufficiency. I don’t mean to say it’s gone.

I’m just frustrated that some of the first questions I often hear when many of our communities face {food security or waste management or economic} problems is “what’s government/our MHA going to do about it?” or people simply blame Canada/St John’s (depending on your world view).

Why do we buy our meat and veggies from somewhere else?

I’m sure we abandoned our family gardens in the past because it was cheaper (return versus investment of time) and easier to do that at some point. I would also bet that people felt pressure to show they had money by buying goods rather than producing them (everyone knows the tale about lobster sandwiches vs canned meat on the school grounds). But times have changed again. There’s less wild game, berries, and fish in our freezers, and less to be had.

Herein is one simple solution to help your local farmer and/or your own dinner table. You can do it to connect with your ancestors. You can do it to save some money and to save the planet. It is a solution to help us rely on ourselves and on each other a little more. We can once again trade rhubarb pies for some smoked char. We can re-engage in the restocking of our soils.

I can think of nothing more patriotic than to “grow” your country and become more independent. Who knew composting could be so revolutionary?

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