"There is no trauma in my garden"
Welcome to this week’s Garden Study Interview! These interviews feature conversations with Garden Study readers like you all about their own gardening rollercoasters. The basics are as follows:
You don’t have to be an expert, just enthusiastic
I make a document with some straightforward questions and send them off; if you have ideas for questions to include in future Q&As, put them in the comments
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Name and Pronouns:
Lyndsie Bourgon (she/her)
Where/what do you garden?
I live in the central interior of British Columbia -- about five hours east of Vancouver, and on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. This is technically Canadian hardiness zone 5b — we have lots of snow in the winter (upwards of 3-4 feet), and it’s very hot in the summertime (and increasingly blanketed for weeks on end in forest fire smoke). The growing season is really short. I tend to plant things that are hardy to zone 4, and they grow the best.
My house is right in the North Thompson River valley. My particular lot was literally built on top of an old gravel bed, so the soil is very sandy and rocky, with good drainage. I do a lot to amend the soil: I cold compost and feed my plants with organic feed, and I do a sort of lasagna/no till method with layers of cardboard, newspaper, mulch, compost, and leaves.
Because I live rurally, I am lucky to have a huge yard in which to garden. When we first moved in, we were told that the previous family kept a hog on one corner of the back lawn, which we then turned into an in-ground bed. After my first summer gardening that plot, I also built six raised beds — I did this because pests (slugs, flies, also I think rabbits!) gnawed through alllllllll of my vegetables. So now I grow essentially all my vegetables in the raised beds, and the in-ground bed is where I grow flowers and squash, which seem to be resilient there.
I also have converted about ¼ of the backyard into a wildflower meadow. This is a multi-year project that I’m ticking away at. I’ve been scattering new seeds each autumn, and letting the lawn self-seed each year. It’s still a bit sparse and I do a lot of weed control in it, but this year there were a lot more flowers than last, so I have some faith.
What’s your gardening philosophy? How do you approach it, how do you think of gardening in your mind, what makes it feel valuable to you?
Gardening is a big part of my mental health care, but I also see it as an integral part of my political outlook. Growing things is an act of resistance and resilience. During food shortages during Covid, I took some solace in knowing that I knew how to grow a tomato or broccoli, that I knew how to preserve herbs and winter vegetables. Then in 2021, an immense amount of rain caused a landslide that cut off my region from our main grocery transport routes, and so for a few weeks we didn’t know how the grocery store would be consistently stocked with perishables. It was a couple of years of feeling a bit unstable — obviously I was never in real danger of not having access to food! But all that disaster, pandemic, and on and on. Gardening felt like a modicum of control in my life, and something that calmed me down in the shadow of failed leadership.
Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about the French Republican calendar — the republican calendar was partly meant to help usher in an era without religious or royalist symbols, and one way it did this was to reframe the months and the entire calendar year. Each year under the republican calendar begins with the autumn equinox, months were given new names based on nature, and each day assigned a symbol related to weather, agriculture, or labour. So for instance: September 5 is 18 Fructidor, the marigold. I’m still working this out in my mind, but there’s a real grounding I’ve found in thinking about the earth and our cycles on it in this way. I took a good look at my fiery marigolds that day. I had a short pause.
In the climate crisis, when the aesthetics and expectations of our seasons are wildly in flux, I take solace in this calendar. In thinking about what seasonality might mean five years from now, how the symbols of the calendar might need to change, how at one time people thought this was worth doing, necessary.
Can you talk a bit about growing up with gardening in the family, and what you did and did not learn?
I grew up in southern Alberta, on an acreage surrounded by cattle ranches and grain farms. By comparison we didn’t have much land at all, but my mom managed a huge garden in our yard, with a potting shed, huge compost bays, and raised beds. I have a lot of memories of being with her in that garden while she weeded (I don’t remember being much help), and I remember her and her friend discussing the best way to eat homegrown tomatoes (with a little bit of balsamic and flaky salt). I was the teenager that couldn’t wait to move to a city: gardening, being on the land, was not a value of mine at the time. Of course I’ve returned to rural living (lol), so I’m lucky that I remember so much.
My paternal grandfather is a dedicated gardener and has been his entire life. He grew his own tomatoes and cucumbers, and made family-famous pickles and jellies each year. So when I garden, I think about them both, it’s quite ancestral for me in this way. And it’s nice that we always have something to share with each other: comparing hauls and new seed companies and varieties and mistakes. At Christmas I now give out my own preserves, and it gives me an annual excuse to be nostalgic and think of my mom canning in our kitchen and making hampers.
What’s your favorite nook/corner of your garden, and when does it really shine?
I built my raised beds alone after watching one YouTube video about 20-30 times, and I’m really proud of them. They break up what was a massive field of a backyard, and I’ve built infrastructure around them for things to climb on. Right now I’m growing pinto beans on some chicken wire walls at the edge of two beds. It really shines from mid-August until bedding down in September, when lettuces and tomatoes are heavily producing.
I also absolutely love a part of my front yard, where I’ve planted tulips in front of a few apple trees. They bring me a lot of joy in the spring, and some much-needed colour to our yard.
If a friend in your zone was starting with a blank slate of a garden, what three plants would you recommend as steady, reliable workhorses?
As much squash and pumpkin as you can handle -- so far I’ve grown about four different varieties, and I find it really satisfying. They can be left alone near the end of the season, when you wait for the leaves to yellow and the stems dry before harvesting. Last year I had a half-dozen blue hubbard squash and they froze really well. Once squash starts growing, you also don’t have to weed as much. Win-win!
In much the same way as squash, carrots and potatoes grow very well here. There are so many amazing varieties of carrot, and absolutely nothing tastes as good to me as a homegrown carrot. So earthy and complex!
This is my first year growing dahlias. I didn’t want to have to unearth them from the in-ground bed and was worried that something might munch the tubers, so they’re in a raised bed and they’re growing really well. Anne, you had a great post recently about dahlias. I never thought I’d get the bug but when they grow strong, god they’re gorgeous, and they bring joy! I’ve picked mine based on nostalgia and memories associated with their names. Don’t you love learning variety names? Right now I’m growing Shiloh Noelle (my dog’s name is Shiloh), Cafe au Lait (duh, but also my partner roasts coffee), tartan (I’ve lived in Scotland a few times and my heart is still there), and I’m growing the Floret “Bee’s Choice” from seed.
What are your garden nemeses, and how have you attempted (or failed) to deal with them?
Oh my god, it’s definitely bindweed. I didn’t identify it at first and pulled it out by the stem, and now it’s literally all over my garden. So this year has been about snipping them at ground-level and starving those roots. But it’s a fool’s errand, frankly.
In terms of pests, rabbits previously feasted on my vegetable garden, and this year they did manage to gain access to my first batch of watermelons. Watermelons are so hard to grow, so of course I was smiting their cute little faces. For some reason we haven’t had deer strolling through our yard, and rabbits seem like the better end of the stick.
But I have to say that my most consistent battle is against grass. I hate lawns, and my approach to our massive yard is to get rid of the grass. So many people have asked me when I’m going to invest in a ride-on lawnmower, and I can’t even imagine spending that amount of cash on a ride-on when I could just simply make more beds. In the meantime though, my weeding is mostly pulling grass, which has made its way through layers of cardboard, mulch, etc.
What’s your biggest gardening “mistake” and what did it teach you?
I cold compost, adding grass clippings, leaves, vegetable and flower trimmings and (until this year) weeds to my compost pile. Then I let it wait a year, turn it, transfer into another “bay” to continue decomposing, and add this year’s clippings to the previous bay. I made the bays out of pallets that our wood stove pellets are delivered on, and it works well!
But I thought that two years of adding to the pile and random turning would be enough — well, this year my raised beds and small planters are stuffed with weeds that had gone to seed in the soil. And there’s random chamomile growing throughout the garden, which is a beautiful surprise!
The biggest thing my garden continually teaches me is patience. I don’t have a lick of it, it’s something I have to actively foster and repeat like a mantra to myself. So — cook the compost more, take the time to separate the weeds, wait for the pay-off.
Why do you think you prefer gardening to all other forms of home maintenance?
Like a lot of millennials, home ownership was essentially impossible for me until I came into a one-off chunk of cash (a book advance) that I was able to parlay into a down payment. And we bought a house in a rural area that needed lots of work, because again that’s all we could qualify for at the time — that was even pre-Covid, before prices became even more untenable. Over the past four years, we’ve had so much stuff go wrong at this house that we joke (“joke”) that it’s a place of trauma.
There is no trauma in my garden. There might be mistakes, but there is always beauty, always food, always a moment in the early morning when I can stop and breathe and think — wow, this is where I am.
What are your future dreams for your garden?
Getting rid of more lawn, as mentioned above. Making sure the wildflower meadow fills in more and more. I’d love to bring in some bee hives — a neighbour friend of mine maintains hives, and it’s absolutely INSANE the quality we put up with in terms of grocery store honey. Even two years into the wildflower meadow, the increase in pollinators in our yard has been notable! There are some infrastructure needs I’d love too, like a new fence, and I’d like to grow some climbing roses.
This year I lay down some irrigation tape for the in-ground bed, which was moderately successful but it tore in a few spots. So I’d like to figure out my watering situation — I still hand water my raised beds with a hose. This is fine for the beginning and end of season, but it’s now very common for us to have 2-3 weeks straight, on and off for months, of poor air quality due to forest fires, and it’s genuinely not pleasant to be standing outside watering when the air is so smokey.
My mom’s approach to weeding is to grow so many wanted plants that you don’t care about the weeds, and four years into my own garden, it’s a dream of mine to be that accepting of what isn’t “supposed” to be there. I’ve noticed this year a trend towards this on Instagram and TikTok — have you?
Finally, this is your chance to crowdsource freely from the Garden Study community. What do you want to ask?
Soooooo many questions!
Please share your favourite varieties of squash! This year I’m growing blue hubbard, rouge vif d’entampes, and red kuri.
Like a lot of people, I am coming to admit that I’m struggling with climate grief. This year was especially bad. How do you balance loving a garden when the temporality around it is in flux? ●
If you have questions for Lyndsie….or just have a general gardening conundrum that’s vexing you this week….or ideas about what she should plant….come to the comments!