Rod Currie and Quinton Gordon provided the photographs for Katherine Gordon's That Garden That You Are (Sono Nis, 2007), a study of eight gardeners within a square mile of each other in the Slocan Valley.
[BCBW 2007] "Gardening"
The Garden That You Are
By Mark Forsythe
One never stops learning when in the garden. Just ask any gardener plotting the next season. All that layering of compost and working of soil can teach you a little about yourself, too.
That’s the case for eight Slocan Valley gardeners, living within a couple of square kilometres of each other, who are featured in Katherine Gordon’s The Garden That You Are (Sono Nis $28.95).
The title tumbled out of a conversation Gordon had with Brenda Elder, who has been working the soil and coaxing plants along for 30 years. “You know, you work with your garden, your land, and what it is makes the garden and who you are,” she said.
Located between the Valhalla and Slocan mountain ranges in eastern B.C., the Slocan Valley is a fertile trough with a moderate climate and long, warm summers. Gordon describes it as “The garden hard by heaven.”
Aboriginal people thrived in this 100-km-long valley for thousands of years; Europeans arrived in the 1890s with dreams of striking it rich in veins of silver at places like New Denver, Slocan City and Sandon (now a ghost town).
Next came the masters of self-sufficiency, Russian Doukhobors fleeing persecution; then came the British invasion. Gordon writes, “Naïve young pioneers from England and Scotland were lured to the valley by enticing advertisements: “Grow apples and grow rich!” They found uncleared land thick with towering trees and mosquitoes.”
Fruit trees abandoned so long ago still bloom. Some Japanese families interned in Slocan camps during WW II stayed after the war. A wave of American Vietnam War resisters and Canadian back-to-the-landers (some of whom formed communes) added another layer of history. Or is that another layer of compost? Gordon believes unique gardens have grown from this eclectic mix of local history, cultures and relationships.
“Those social structures, if one is a gardener, are inextricably intertwined with why, what, where and how we garden. Everything that happens in our lives influences those choices in some fashion… In turn, that piece of land that we have chosen to work with (or which, in some cases, has chosen us) will in some way influence who we are, our relationships, and the events in our lives, each and every day.”
The eight gardeners featured in The Garden That You Are all come from somewhere else, each bringing something different to their garden. Edda West is an immigrant from Estonia, by way of Toronto, whose grandmother “imbued her with passion for the earth.” She gardens on ten riverside acres and plucks plants from the wild, some for medicinal teas, tinctures, salves and creams.
In the spring, Edda West gathers dandelions (“the queen of beta carotene!”), nettles and lambs quarters. Chickweed is another spring staple, rich in minerals and excellent in salads. For her, the garden provides nourishment for body and soul. She “feels sorry for children who never get to experience working with the earth.”
And if she could grow only one flower, it would be Calendula. “It is edible, medicinal, and incredibly hardy, and is the last flower to keep blooming in the late fall.”
Brenda Elder and her husband Gail are transplants from Surrey, drawn to the Slocan in search of self-sufficiency in 1972. This proved more daunting than imagined, and Gail was forced to return to teaching. Brenda grew organic food for their family, and later developed a business around organic bedding plants. Now retired from teaching, Gail is back in the fields every day, tending 13 varieties of organic potatoes. The Elders consider their land part of a larger ecosystem and, as a result, large tracts remain wild for birds, turtles, deer and bears.
Victoria Carleton and Steve Mounteer landed in the Slocan from Ohio and Oregon respectively. She spent almost five years homesteading in the Nass Valley in northwestern B.C, displaying a gardening prowess that won her a Harrowsmith gardening contest in 1985. After buying property in 1990, they got to work creating their own gardens on forty acres.
Some plants are connected with special people in their lives. Wilda’s Columbine is from her grandmother’s seeds; and a rose bush from a neighbour honours that neighbour’s deceased daughter. “It’s not just about a patch of dirt,” says Mounteer, “it’s about people, about everyone they know and love.”
Rabi’a first homesteaded on the B.C./Yukon border near Telegraph Creek. In the Slocan, she’s created a garden based on permaculture, where one uses as little land as possible, and works with the land. An artist, she weaves her creations into the garden. By putting stones at the base of her corn, this captures more heat, producing a crop twice as high.
The Garden That You Are includes numerous sidebars on herbal medicinals, Japanese gardening, permaculture, the humble potato (a super-food that kept the Irish alive for centuries and became a campaign nightmare for Dan Quayle), biodynamics (the land as a living whole) and even the benefits of swallow boxes (think mosquitoes).
Gordon also offers tips on tools, building up the soil and composting; a garden reading list; and a smattering of recipes. With its mixture of practical advice and inspirational personalities, The Garden That You Are just might kick a few non-gardeners out the back door to get a start on some local food production of their own, or else make more people want to move to the Slocan Valley.
The photographs by Rod Currie and Quinton Gordon capture the Slocan in the sweetest light. All that time spent outdoors serves these gardeners well: they’re all sun-baked, remarkably fit, and vibrant, content to be up to their elbows in compost.
Mark Forsythe is the well-read and well-travelled host of CBC Almanac.