SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1999

9Tires, Old Lumber and Strawberries

photos and story by Cassandra Price

Along the shoreline of Masset Inlet, where cedar forests and berry patches have been cleared for housing, sandy ground lies exposed. Only grasses and clover thrive in the empty lots. Holding out, here and there, against the winds are single stalks of white blossomed yarrow. But inside a high grey fence grows one yarrow plant so tall, so thick with stems and flowers, a lanky man's arms couldn't encircle it.

This is the Old Massett garden of John Good and Roberta Swanson, a garden bursting with colour and foliage, looking as if the plants forgot their genetic programming of when to stop growing. John beamed proudly beside a towering foxglove. "It has six stems in bloom," he said, "and the kale plants (higher than the fence) are still growing from last year." In an adjoining bed Roberta patted a Shasta daisy whose dense blooms shone like a searchlight on a drizzly day.

A guided tour around their garden is like leafing through a treasured scrapbook of children's lives. Together John and Roberta pointed out each plant, enthusiastically recalling its original size, who had given it to them, how it had weathered last year's freeze.

One secret to their garden's success lies on Masset beaches. Their front yard had been all sand, John said with a nod to nearby fields."I brought in eight pickup loads of seaweed for compost," he said. Anyone who has slipped and slid along the Masset Inlet shore at low tide can see the early stages of his compost in the rotting ribbons of algae - brown, golden, red, black, green, and cream - that float in with the summer tides.

It was the opposite story in the back yard. There the former cedar swamp needed 40 truckloads of sand to fill it. Little of their nutritious garden soil is visible, however. In every spare bit of earth grow strawberries. Thick mats of strawberries. Under the kale, along the fence, in an old tire, growing out of holes cut in soil-filled garbage cans.

"John's favourite things are tires, old lumber and strawberries," Roberta said with a laugh, as she pointed out a tower of tires with strawberry plants running out between the gaps.

"Tires do make good places for planting," John said, noting they need less soil to fill than a garden bed, they barricade creeping weeds, and they deter slugs. Healthy clumps of chives testified to his practicality.

Salvaged lumber had been assembled into raised beds for beets, peas and purple potatoes. Fish netting screens the vegetables to keep out deer and dogs.
But nothing Roberta has found deters ravens. "A raven even flew off with a branch of three green strawberries," she said.

Their garden is only in its fourth summer, but each of them had childhood experiences that nurtured their interest in gardening. Wherever her family lived, Roberta remembers her stepfather having a garden. She helped with the planting, weeding and pushing the mower. But it was the first garden she planted from seeds, when she was 10 years old that gave her a real taste for it. "The only flowers I remember were bachelor buttons," she said, "but I remember being really happy when they came up."

Beginning when he was 5 or 6 years old, John spent several summers with his grandfather, who cared for several gardens besides his own. "I'd weed," he said, "and see what he did. I can remember what it looked like, but not the details." Only after John got his own hoe did he remember how his grandfather had used it to keep down the weeds.

Their garden does not conform to any pre-set plan. Instead, they put in plants or seeds given them by other gardeners to try, follow suggestions from the Martha Stewart and Canadian Gardener TV programs, occasionally order from a gardening catalog, and gratefully accept seeds dropped by passing birds. An album of photographs taken of each part of their garden every year inspires them to try new plantings. "You learn as you go," Roberta said.

Finding what will survive is a real challenge. What doesn't grow well in one part of the garden is moved to a sunnier, or drier, or less windy area. John finds that plants related to native species, such as their flourishing columbine often do best. " They gotta be tough to live around here," he said.


SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1999