At first glance the site did not appear very promising. Rake and shovel in hand, we had travelled on the bus five hours north from Toronto to investigate a piece of land – a place to garden – that we had heard about from a friend.
Hitching, then walking the last few miles in, we turned the final corner to find a flat field hip-high in seedy hay grass, some scrubby chokecherries crusted with black knot and a few leaning fence posts looped with rusty wire. Only a stand of tall lilacs and a grove of half wild apple trees suggested that there had once been a garden here.
From a gardener's point of view, it's what lies under the surface that matters. Digging through the tangled thatch of grass roots we came up with handfuls of gritty sod so dry it flowed through our fingers like sand in an hourglass. Not the crumbly chocolate cake loam we were hoping for, but then again it was July of a dry season after all – and better sand than unyielding clay. Besides, didn't our old gardening books say that any soil, whatever its present state, could be brought around to good texture and fertility? The land needed humus, compost, organic matter – and lots of it.
Still, as eager as we were for more space in which to garden, we were hesitant about making the move from city to country; the change would be sudden and complete. Heading back on the bus, we happened to sit beside a woman who said just what we needed to hear to tip the balance. "Why not give it a try for a year? You're not burning any bridges. If you don't like country life you can always go back." Good advice, and timely. A few weeks later a relative hauled us back with a few belongings, the most important being a second-hand rototiller. His encouraging last words? "You'll never make it here."
That was in 1975 and our gardening experience to date had been tending two city vegetable gardens one season each but this was enough to convince us that we were gardeners at heart. Our original intention was simply to grow a big organic food garden, a source of unsprayed vegetables and fruit that reflected our interest in eating for health. For several years we did grow only edibles, all the while tilling and raking out heaps of wiry twitch grass roots that ran all through the field. As much as we grumbled about this tenacious plant, we came to appreciate that the dense weave of twitch roots had helped to preserve the light ground from wind erosion. Every creature, it seems, has its place and purpose.