October 24, 2020

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My garden is my pandemic pleasure

This is a gentle column about gardening. Tougher, more fibrous readers may wish to back away and click on the peeled nerve of a Trump column.

“Life is sometimes sad and often dull, but there are currants in the cake and here is one of them,” the novelist Nancy Mitford once wrote about her love affair with a Frenchman who, by the way, turned out to be a jerk of the highest order. (Gaston Palewski dumped Mitford on her deathbed to marry the rich and titled Violette Talleyrand-Périgord de Pourtales, and doesn’t that really say it all.)

I have used the quote before to refer to El Anatsui’s golden curtain sculpture at the Royal Ontario Museum. The currants since then have been getting an interview with the journalist Jon Ronson, finding bulk Lysol Wipes, and scoring a MERV 13 furnace filter, so the bar for bliss is clearly sinking.

We shall now raise it. My tiny just-planted garden is the currant in my pandemic cake. Nothing in the past seven months has given me more pleasure and comfort, although we all have high hopes for U.S. election day on Nov. 3.

Mine is the most difficult kind of garden, north-facing and shady, so a very smart garden planner has chosen dogwoods and evergreens like yew, boxwood and euonymus, good for gardeners like me who have faced disappointment and defeat. And ferns. Ferns are good. Anyone can grow an ostrich fern.

Apartment dwellers, you can grow shrubs like this in fibreglass containers that are big and fat enough to offer dirt insulation during the winter.

Fences are hostile things in a small-scale, extremely friendly area, so mine are practical, those Corten steel planters that rust so fetchingly. Even dogs don’t pee on them in this, the doggiest of neighbourhoods.

Basically the new garden is foliage, therefore a very dark green, which can look gloomy but determined. Very few perennials will flower with so little sunlight. What you’re planting is tough mothers like Maidenhair grass, which will grow very tall allegedly with white fluffy tip that toss about in the wind.

And then there are rocks. Rocks are to gardens as cheese is to hikers. Both useful and beautiful, they don’t break, leak, or deteriorate.

Architecture succeeds when it is vernacular, meaning it uses local materials. The American southwest has adobe, British Columbia builds with wood, especially cedar, and Ontario has rock, lots and lots of rock.

I would prefer Flintstones-sized boulders but can’t afford them and then again, it’s a tiny house. So there is armour stone throughout the garden where people can sit, and paving stones where they can walk. There’s one terrific flat-top rock with sedimentary layers that any passing cat could pose on. In other words, it’s a pandemic garden with all the distancing anyone could demand.

As long as you have a small table, you can safely have coffee with co-workers in the front garden if you sit farther away on the porch, which I have done. The back garden is a bit grotty with its stock tanks for growing vegetables but children like it. South-facing but without much sun, it’s possible that hydrangea, those huge white floral fists in fall, might do well. Next spring I will infill with Project Swallowtail native plants that attract butterflies and hard-done-by bees.

I briefly considered buying a patio heater but is there a greater unkindness to the planet than heating the outdoors? I have grave doubts about the clematis vine, but the peony, a sophisticated plant that will offer years of bloomless taunting until 2025, is still worth trying.

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Gardens are meant to be havens. Mine is dark at the front, lighter of heart at the back. Here’s the purpose: when you’re distressed, sit on the ground and stare, unmasked, at the nearest plant.

It is its own self, existing to please no one, exuding endurance in winter and beauty in summer. It is as indifferent to humans as the Irish airman in the Yeats poem is to his fellow man, driven only by “a lonely impulse of delight” to pop up each year. It will survive us just as we will survive the pandemic.

Heather Mallick

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