At Lasqueti Island in June 1860, [Captain G.H.] Richards noted that ‘”The poverty of the soil is indeed a more serious drawback to colonization in this dependency of Great Britain. I have never seen in any country in the world such a general absence of moderately good land as I have met with both on the Vancouver Island shore and that of British Columbia.”
–The Private Journal of Captain G.H. Richards, reviewed in “BC Bookworld”, Summer 2012
Captain Richards could have been describing my garden when he wrote the above words. The soil here is clay and shell, hard packed, incapable of absorbing much water, and laced through and through with the roots of Cedar and Arbutus trees.
Digging out a new garden bed can only be done with great effort and at exactly the right time of year–in early spring, while the ground is still wet from the winter rains, but has lightened up somewhat from its winter condition of heavy, sticky mud.
From previous owners, we’ve inherited large areas of lawn, but these are by no means velvety emerald swathes surrounded by lush perennial beds. The leaves constantly dropping from Cedar trees create acidity: not at all the ideal condition for a healthy lawn. Our water supply is limited and, in hot summers, the surface well that provides water for our plants dries up by the end of July. We never use this precious water for sprinkling the lawn.
In his essay, “The Lawn: North America’s magnificent obsession,” Robert Fulford says “Lawns go back to antiquity, but it was the British who, in the years after the Renaissance, turned the lawn into a cult and a way of life. Across England, they made immaculate lawns the focus of great gardens and quadrangles. They made lawns the setting for most of their games, notably cricket, croquet, and bowls. As the empire grew, sod followed the Union Jack, and proud patches of greenery spread to the distant shores of Australia and India.”
Our lawns do serve their purpose: they provide open meadow-like areas that let in the sun and provide a break from the native trees and shrubs, but no one would dream of trying to play croquet on our grass. It is lumpy and its colour is uneven. In June, large areas of daisies appear and we allow them to bloom and re-seed with abandon. In July, the Arbutus trees begin to drop their leaves, a perverse reversal of seasons that has me raking up dry leaves for most of the summer.
Given the scarcity of water, poverty of soil and voracious herds of deer, I don’t even try to grow vegetables. Rose bushes and Japanese anemones must live inside wire cages to protect them from the deer. Deer resistant, drought tolerant flowers fill the garden beds. Everything else must grow in containers on the enclosed deck.
None of this makes for abundance in the life of a gardener. I’ve been dealing with these adverse conditions for thirteen years now, but lately I have been thinking that the fault lies in my own expectations. What is abundance? What is scarcity? There is no absolute measurement, but only the failure of the environment to live up to my own unrealistic expectations. Recently, I was struck by a passage written by Theresa Kishkan:
Gardens are an attempt to mirror Eden. But what if you already lived there? What if you could step out your door and pick huckleberries, salal, the new tips of thimbleberry to steam like celery? What if you could dig the roots of the blue camas to dry, springback clover tasting like young peas, wild onions to flavour your stew? Or climb down to the beach to the clam beds, carefully terraced over the centuries. What if walking in the woods was like wandering through a vast and beloved place of abundance? Why clear the earth of all these life-giving plants in order to have . . . grass?
–Theresa Kishkan, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees
Why should I think that the cultivated roses, which take so much effort, are more beautiful than the daisies that volunteer themselves, or the wild rose, camas and salal that grow so abundantly with no care at all?