Gardens in winter

Of memories and plans…

Something wonderful is happening on my windowsill as I write this: a clove of garlic that was planted in late November is sprouting. At this point, the shoot remains quite short, but a bit of green on top of the soil was a treat to my eyes when I watered it last week.

When kept indoors, garlic shoots (or greens) may be clipped an inch above the soil and used to season mashed potatoes, pesto, or in any recipe that calls for garlic. If you trim the shoots (not to be confused with scapes), the clove will not grow into a full bulb, but you can always plant more garlic in containers and place them outside if you wish to have fresh cloves in summer and fall.

Unlike previous generations of gardeners in Newfoundland and Labrador, growing food (on windowsills and outdoors) is a pastime for me. I garden as a way to learn more about food, pay more attention to what I am eating, spend time outside, clear my mind, maintain familial traditions, limit my food miles, and generally enjoy watching gardens come into being. Since moving to St. John’s in 2008, I have also become more involved with community gardening, and also enjoy the social component of these activities.

In this week’s column, I’m going to revel in the excitement of gardening. Without meaning to promote romantic or idealistic senses of gardening (as a necessity or a pastime) I will indulge in a few memories and provide a few basic suggestions to you, the reader, this week.

Garden memories

Gardens are places that I took for granted while I was growing up. Fresh herbs, strawberries, salad greens, tomatoes, beans, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, cabbages, and more were widely available to my family as a result of my mother’s and grandparents’ gardening activities in and around Stratford, Ontario. Games of baseball in my paternal grandparents’ backyard sometimes came to a close with a trip to their garden, where it was not uncommon to gather ingredients for a dinner salad. A sprig of dill would be nipped off and passed toward me, and a lesson would ensue: “Here, smell this.” Grandpa would say, “Do you remember its name?” At the age of five, the garden seemed like a faraway place, tucked at the edge of the more familiar grass-covered portion of my grandparents’ yard. I was not to venture to the garden alone since it had been planted a short distance in front of an active railway line, so the garden was associated with my grandpa as guide. At the section of the garden that had been planted with herbs, I would reluctantly let go of his hand to accept a fragrant gift and guess its name from the list that he had taught me during previous visits. A right answer received a carrot, a wrong answer, another try.

As a child and adolescent, spring and summer were seasons that were marked, in part, by gardening with my mother. Seeds, seedlings, and soil were purchased from local horticultural groups, grocery stores and nurseries soon after the ground stopped smelling of thaw. Decisions were made quickly without much talk about the task at hand. Mum moved with precision at the gardening supply venues, checking stalks and leaves on seedling trays, asking about sun and shade needs for unmarked plants, and pointing directly to bags of soil and manure mix without too many side glances. Preparations took about a day, and the small garden was planted within an afternoon.

Gardens were woven into home and family in ways I did not realize until these moments had passed.

As summer set in, mum spent her afternoons within and beside the garden, performing a range of activities that she referred to, rather vaguely, as “puttering”. This involved kneeling around the garden, weeding, nipping off browning leaves, taking breaks to sit on the lounge chair in order to enjoy another chapter of the book she was reading, and setting up the sprinkler for the garden and our own benefit (who doesn’t enjoy a run through the sprinkler on a hot day, really?) later on in the afternoon. She did not lecture me about the processes of keeping a garden, and as a child, I did not suppose that she was teaching me any skills. My own activities often ranged from helping her out with weeding and harvesting, to playing in the yard, somewhat removed from the puttering. The garden was a given. It was where I knew I could find her, it was where I would be sent when it was time to make dinner, and where I would retrieve the dog – who had a thing for the peppers she grew. Gardens were woven into home and family in ways I did not realize until these moments had passed.

Since learning more about gardening as a university student and an adult, I’ve become more comfortable with pursuing this activity without completely understanding what I’m doing. What I mean is, there are trials and errors in every season, surprises and mistakes. Gardening is the type of thing that you learn through readings, workshops, but practice most importantly. Besides the satisfaction that I feel when a row of produce is cleared of weeds, I’ve enjoyed the quiet aspects of gardening and the way picking stones and planting seeds focuses me on something other than the trivial worries and uncertainties that I attempt to wrap my head around on a daily basis. I like the way a garden reveals what has and has not been done. In this way, it’s an honest activity, though gardeners sometimes keep their own scores.

Gardening at home and away

Since moving to St. John’s, I have continued to practice my food production skills by participating in community gardens (shared places where food is grown with or alongside others and often distributed amongst them).

Community gardens are becoming increasingly popular across the province, and they have been organized for a variety of reasons. In some instances, they seek to encourage intergenerational learning amongst elderly persons and youth, provide access to fresh produce for those who tend them, create a space where parents and young children may learn more about gardening together, and they also allow persons who have migrated to the province from other parts of Canada or the world to practice food traditions that were begun at home.

Backyard gardening initiatives have also been organized in order to make gardening an easier activity for beginners. In some cases, garden boxes are constructed and delivered to people’s homes, and brief instructional activities are given in order to share gardening skills with those who are new to the activity. Due to the high cost of food in the province, and the role that gardening can play toward the goal of meeting food security needs, gardening has been embraced by community organizations and individuals who are attempting to increase consumption of fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables. Gardening is also considered to be a physical activity, and a pastime that may lead to the development of healthier lifestyles.

A few suggestions

When choosing seeds, it is important to keep the soil and climactic conditions of your particular region in mind. Purchase seeds from your area’s organic producers, local seed stores, or order them from online sources that specialize in varieties that will thrive in northern climates. When in doubt, ask a seasoned gardener, farmer, or Ross Traverse.

A short growing season is often cited as a challenging aspect of gardening in Newfoundland and Labrador, but starting seedlings at home will help to ensure that when you plant your garden you will see a faster, and heartier, return. If you are unsure about how to start seedlings at home, check out the following YouTube video.

Visit to read gardening-related blog posts and discussion forums created by those who are gardening throughout the province.

If you are looking for more information about planning or planting a garden, the Food Security Network can also put you in touch with community organizations in your region that are working on gardening-related workshops and activities.

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