For the last two or three years Button Soup has been largely about animals. Pigs, especially. It must seem that I eat pork chops and sausages every night. In reality I don’t consider myself a voracious meat-eater.
That being said, I do find animals pretty easy to understand. They really are all the same: cows, chickens, pigs, and aardvarks. All mother-animals and father-animals reproduce more or less the same way, a way very familiar to us humans. The baby-animals eat food and grow up and reproduce similarly, and if you cut their throat they die and you can eat them. I know there are exceptions to some of these statements, but really animals are easy.
While I can say succinctly that all animals reproduce by sexual intercourse, in which the male of the species fertilizes the female’s egg, this can certainly not be said of plants. Until recently I assumed that plants were more or less the same as animals: a male plant (whatever that means) does something inappropriate to a female plant, then something about flowers and fruits and ultimately seeds. Then I started wondering why I had never seen a potato seed, or a rhubarb seed. I started wondering what the “fruit” of the elm tree looks like, and where it was exactly. There seems to be several ways by which plants reproduce: of course by seed, but also by suckers, tubers, cuttings, graftings, and sometimes just by falling over (strawberries…). Still others are “self-fertile”.
Another way that plants have confounded me is in their resiliency: some seem to be more or less invincible. I can destroy ninety percent of the mass of a dandelion in my front yard, and it will grow back. Certainly there is no animal for which we can say the same.
As I now live on a proper city lot I am just, just starting to explore the plant kingdom as a gardener and cook. And just as the only way to understand meat is to buy (or raise…) a whole animal, cut it up, and cook every bit of it, I assume that the only way to really understand plants is to start growing them. Thankfully Lisa and I have lots of room to do that.
I live in the city, and I don’t hunt, so my relationship with meat will probably always be by way of farmers and abattoir-workers. I’m okay with that. My relationship to plants will be much more intimate. So far it has involved changing the face of our yard one heavy shovelful at a time, and I have certainly exerted more labour in the last three years producing our paltry array of vegetables than I have in the last ten years procuring our meat.
Let me tell you about the first three years that we have lived in this yard, and its slow-but-steady transformation into a garden.
Year 0: Observation
Through the first summer in our new home, we basically let the yard do what it pleased. We cut the grass, but otherwise every plant was left to sucker and shoot and bloom as it wished. This was done partly because we were travelling in Europe for a couple months, but also so that we could see exactly what lived in our yard. We had some clues, of course – fetid crabapples littering the yard, conspicuous raspberry canes – but otherwise we had no knowledge of the plants we had moved in with.
Findings from Year 0
Plants need help. Very early in the spring it became apparent that there were lots of edible plants in our yard: two apple trees, a cherry bush, dozens of raspberry canes, strawberries, horseradish, rhubarb, currants both red and black, juniper, thyme, mint, and oregano. As soon as the leaves revealed the identity of an established edible, I naively envisioned an Eden-like harvest later in the summer. In reality the only plants that produced as I had expected were the raspberries. The apple trees fruited, but made small, tart green apples. We had one branch of sour cherries which were easily consumed in one evening. The currants were by far the most disappointing. I had recently eaten my first authentic Linzertorte, which is bright red currant jam sandwiched by buttery cake. With no less than five currant bushes, I had looked forward to a month of eating the Austrian specialty. That summer I harvested exactly ten currants.
There were several reasons for the poor performance, ranging from pollination to pruning to the age of the plants, but the large, overriding problem in the yard was a lack of light. Plants had gone unpruned for years. They were overgrown, and adjacent branches were strangling and shadowing each other. Even if all the edible trees and shrubs had been well kept, there were several, towering trees along the yard’s perimeter acting as an effective canopy. Morning light was blocked by a maple on our eastern fence, and a veritable forest extending into neighbour’s yards. On the southern and western borders were elms, maples, and lilacs that had been unchecked for years.
We kind of like some ornamentals. When we first considered the future of our backyard we asked with a good deal of self-righteousness: “Why would anyone ever plant something that is not edible?” After a season of watching tulips and lilacs and lillies and forget-me-nots and hollyhocks bloom, we realized that we actually love having ornamental flowers around.
Identifying plants is hard. After Year 0 there were still a handful of Rumpelstiltskin plants that we couldn’t put a name to. Thankfully most of them would give up their secrets in the years to come, but only after we made some serious efforts to let them flourish.
Year 1: Clearing the Land
Removing Untenable Trees and Shrubs. Some of the large trees obviously needed to go. The maple and elm on the southern border were growing into the foundation of the garage, and would certainly destroy the concrete in years ahead. Other trees were harder to part with. There was a large ornamental crabapple in the centre of the yard with a disctinct “Y” formation. In May it bloomed for about one week: large flowers starting brilliant fuscha, then fading to a stately mauve. It really was a beautiful tree, and we debated for some weeks whether it should be removed to allow more light into the northern section of the backyard. In late March the decision was made for us when a brisk, wet snowfall came. The precipitation was without exaggeration the wettest, densest snow I’ve ever had the misfortune of clearing from my walks. Lifting one shovelful was like carrying a bucket of water. The weight of the snow and the quickness of its descent strained our crabapple to the point that one of the arms of the “Y” broke and fell into the yard. The exposed interior wood was rotting, so the entire tree had to come down.
These tall, established trees are a large part of the charm of the “older” neighbourhoods in Edmonton like the Garneau and McKernan. When I told a neighbour of our plans to remove some of them he said plainly that it was shame, and the implication was that we were compromising the character of the neighbourhood.
I have more than my share of appreciation for the old, elegant trees in my area. The avenues in the Garneau are lined by elms that reach over the road and meet to form a distinct, gothic arch. But frankly short-sighted and lazy home-owners let trees run amok, and I find it deeply hypocritical to scorn untrimmed lawns or unraked leaves but then leave maple suckers unchecked for years until they grow down into the foundations of homes and up into the eaves.
Because of a beard and a penchant for plaid clothing, I have at numerous times in the past few years been described as a lumberjack. The summer of Year 1 saw me act the part. While the removal of the large trees was contracted to a professional arborist, the pruning or destruction of the many overgrown shrubs was left to me. Most egregious were four lilacs, one of which had numerous trunks between four and six inches across. In their desperate search for light, all four were about twenty feet tall, reaching into power lines and over garage roofs and neighbours’ yards.
Sheet Mulching Weeds and Grass. Besides the removal of the overgrowth taking light from the yard, large swaths of weeds and tall grasses had to be converted to garden beds. There were the familiar dandelions and ox-eyed daisies and creeping bell-flowers that appear in most yards, but there were also a surprising number of deliberately planted but extremely invasive species, notably delphinia and lilies of the valley. The conversion was accomplished largely by sheet mulching. The process is a simple one, but effective. First the existing growth is hacked as close to the ground as possible. Then the ground is covered in layers of nitrogen-rich green compost and carbon-rich brown compost. Then a layer of cardboard is put down, which will kill existing weeds by depriving them of light. More compost layers are set out, and finally mulch. The area is watered liberally, and over time the sod and weeds and cardboard will break down and you will have a healthy garden bed the following season.
Compost. To bolster the production of quality soil I also started bringing home scraps from work: potato skins, carrots peelings, outer cabbage leaves, tomato vines, and so on. Restaurant trim is an enormous, untapped source of compostable material. The exact amount varies from day to day, but I continue to take at least five pounds home every evening. Some times it’s closer to twenty. More enlightened parts of the world already offer compost collection as a civic service (much of Europe, for example, and Spruce Grove…).
What is the opposite of a blank slate, proverbially? To landscape a backyard in a new subdivision is to start with a blank slate. The task is easy, as you don’t have to worry about removing existing plants.
We started with whatever is the opposite of a blank slate, which meant a lot of work. But interestingly the shear amount of organic material in our yard (lawn clippings, weeds, twigs and branches and trunks, dead leaves, pine needles, and the several cubic yards of mulch left behind by the tree removal) will hopefully build a garden with good soil without us having to buy much in the way of topsoil or peat moss or sand or fertilizer. Likewise we didn’t have to fill garbage bags with grass and leaves for pick-up. In many ways the wild overgrowth in our yard will be feeding us for many years, in the soil that we are building, and the firewood that is now stacked in and around our garage.
While we are still working on taking back the land from lawn and forest, this is our first year of serious planting. I will discuss the specific fruits and vegetables that we planted in individual posts. They include cherries, haskaps, currants, potatoes, asparagus, beans, and many others. Stay tuned. Briefly, here are some of the observations from the gardening year so far.
Findings from Year 2
Gardening is effing hard. It is both back-breaking and finnicky. We are in a constant battle to keep weeds (especially dandelion, elm, maple, and bellflower) from encroaching on garden beds. Even after sheet mulching many of our beds, being composed of clay, are still not hospitable to vegetables, and will need further amending.
Birds are a bit bothersome. Another charming part of older neighbourhoods with big trees is the number of birds and small animals that live in close quarters with us humans. We regularly see robins, sparrows, blue jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and of course magpies in our yard. We also get woken up by tidings of magpies, and have to put up with their eternal, cacophonous struggle against the robins. Birds end up eating a lot of our fruit, especially haskaps and cherries. We’re going to invest in some netting.
Much, much more plant news on the way. Happy gardening.