The first time she came by, on a chilly May morning, she gave me a decisive thumbs down and kept on walking. The next week she came she gave a tentative thumbs up and kept on her way. The following week she smiled and enthusiastically gave a thumbs and for the weeks after that she helped to weed, give tips and always a smile and thumbs up. My interaction with the women who picks up bottles in the morning perfectly exemplifies the power of a front yard food garden. She did not speak a word of English and I don’t speak a word of her language but we had lively (I have discovered the power of hand motions) chats about how to stake tomatoes, when to pick cucumbers, the importance of diligent weeding and how to share a private space (that also is very public) with an entire neighborhood. However, the garden lady never seemed to recognize me outside the garden, despite enthusiastic waves and smiles.
It was not just the garden lady I got to know, I chatted with people who would check out the garden on their morning walks or evening saunters. What was unique about this garden was that it was not mine. This is how it came about.
My partner and I moved to Toronto in April 2010 after spending a couple of years in New Zealand. We knew no one but have grown to love the city. About three weeks after moving to our little apartment in Harbord Village the residence association hosted a street clean up, complete with free pizza. It was here that we met our new garden friend. She lived two doors down in a house converted to apartments with a generous front and backyard. She was friendly and an environmentalist and at that clean up we agreed to meet up for a cup of tea.
Fast forward two months, neither she nor I had gotten in contact with each other (despite living about 15 paces from each other). That’s when I noticed her front yard. It had a lovely wooden fence and was growing all sorts of plants – primarily weeds but very healthy weeds mind you. The landlord, in an effort to reduce work, would let everything grow till it was 4 or 5 feet then mow it all down to the bare soil before letting it grow again. As you could imagine the space was not used other than a demonstration on the abilities of an electric mower.
That is when I got up the nerve to contact (I admit I e-mailed rather than walk over, but we are living in a digital age are we not?) my neighbor and ask if we could talk about the possibilities of her front yard. As luck would have it she was receptive to the idea and there was lots of talk about the garden – I could do as I please (to a reasonable degree) and she could take veggies whenever she pleased. While no veggies grew that summer a friendship did and we were ready to dig in this spring. It was a success – we grew zucchini, carrots, beans, beets, cucumber, hot peppers, basil, lettuce, squash and many MANY tomatoes. All four of us (partners got involved as well!) took up the effort of pulling the thistle and planting. We made advocates along the way including the neighbor in between us who is a prolific gardener and gave us a multitude of seedlings including many of our tomatoes and lettuce.
The garden was not without some bumps – notability a community member who was categorically and vehemently against growing vegetable in the front garden – but it has been an exceptionally rewarding experience. I have never felt like I belonged to any community as much as I do to where I live now. It makes me wonder what other traditionally private activities could be brought out into public spaces that starts a conversation, a sharing of experience or even an exchange of smiles on a early summer morning. I am in the garden less and in the kitchen more harvesting and preserving the bounty from the garden. And for the first time just the other day I saw the garden lady go by while I was in my kitchen making pasta sauce, or green tomato chutney or maybe some tomato soup. I waved and smiled and, for the first time, she smiled and waved back, motioning with her hands how big our tomatoes have gotten.