Back in April, one of our filmmakers in residence, Vali, sent out a mass email inviting us to build a vegetable garden in the interior courtyard at work. Well, “build” isn’t the most accurate way of putting it; we weren’t exactly knocking together pieces of 4×4 to make raised beds or fancy planter boxes. Instead, Vali suggested using individual geotextile bins called Smart Pots. If you’ve never heard of them, they’re essentially a form of container gardening, except that instead of growing your plants in plastic or ceramic pots, you use a large, sturdy, porous, reusable bag. (I know it doesn’t sound very sexy, but bear with me.)
At first, I was a bit reluctant to hop on the bandwagon – not because I didn’t like the idea, but mostly because I feared that my black thumb would slowly destroy everything it touched. I already had a bad track record with house plants (R.I.P Edgar, Lucinda, Phyllis, Thelonius III and Mike), some of whose shrivelled remains I ended up dumping in the shrubs of my back alleyway (shhh). And then there’s been my balcony herb garden, which, despite containing some of the easiest things to grow (rosemary, thyme, parsley, mint…), has gone through phases of clinging on for dear life. I seem to have a talent for killing the un-killable. At some point, I stopped naming my plants. The back-alley burials became easier after that.
Luckily, my quiet misgivings about becoming the Grim Reaper of the work-garden collective were outweighed by a genuine (though perhaps, latent) interest in making an honest go of gardening. Besides, working with a Smart Pot (I swear they don’t pay me to advertise) seemed relatively simple, even for an notorious plant-killer like myself. And the idea of growing my own vegetables was really appealing – no pesticides or weird chemicals, not to mention the unparalleled satisfaction of planting something small, watching it grow, then harvesting it and turning it into dinner.
It sounded rad.
And so, in early May, when the evening frosts of spring had subsided, about twenty of us rolled up our sleeves and went to work – hauling dirt, sorting, lifting, filling, planting, watering. Before long, we had a sizeable vegetable patch populated by different varieties of tomatoes, leafy greens, cucumbers and herbs. There were even a few eggplants, zucchini and squash, along with some carrots and spinach (which a very ambitious colleague planted by seed). We were all pretty chuffed with the results: what was once a barren area in a nondescript courtyard was now alive with edible plants. The space felt resuscitated and purposeful. It was also a heck of a lot prettier than the long, sad strip of gravel that used to be there.
Most importantly, though, we had a garden – a small, but functional, beautiful, food-producing space that would have otherwise gone unused. And frankly, that in and of itself, is a triumph.
Each afternoon, I’d duck out of the office for a few minutes to tend to my tiny pot – pruning, inspecting, adjusting, watering. It became the meditative pause in my day, where the only sound within earshot was the low rumble of bumble bees gliding from one flower to the next. With every visit, I’d eagerly investigate the progress, gasping (or squealing, depending) at each little glimmer of hope – a tiny cluster of cucumbers sprouting underneath a big prickly leaf, or delicate white flowers that began to give way to tender, svelte string beans. It might have been the honeymoon phase of the first-time gardener, but watching those plants slowly transform and blossom was nothing short of magic.
And despite one suicidal cucumber…
…the garden grew and grew and (to my sincere surprise) actually flourished.
It was at this point in the process that I began to think a lot about my grandfather. He was, without a doubt, the green thumb of the family. I never knew anyone to adore plants the way grandpa Joe adored plants. When my brother and I were younger, we’d spend a good amount of the summer visiting our grandparents’ community garden, a large swath of earth divided neatly into individual plots, each with their own set of orderly rows. Their Italian roots dictated that they have a sizeable number of tomato plants, along with an equally large amount of basil, red bell peppers, chili peppers (pepperoncini), carrots, Italian celery, garlic and onions. My brother and I had a particular soft spot for the carrots. Any chance we’d get, we’d pluck one from the earth, rinse it under the hose and crunch into it. They were always sweet, earthy and, much to our delight, gnarly and goofy-looking. If we were lucky, we’d come across one that – if you used your imagination – looked like it had a phallus sprouting a long, thin hair. For two kids under the age of ten, this, dear readers, was choice entertainment.
When we weren’t laughing at carrots or running between narrow rows of tomato plants, our grandpa tried to teach us a thing or two about gardening, which was hard because we didn’t speak much Italian then and he didn’t speak much French (our common language at the time since they never spoke a lick of English), and while we tried to meet eachother somewhere in the middle, a lot was lost in translation. Then we were teenagers, and while our Italian got better, our interest in gardening took a back seat to other things (in my case, trying to memorize the lyrics to every single Smashing Pumpkins song, including the B-sides, and attempting, quite unsuccessfully, to sun-bleach my hair with lemons).
We might not have been aware of it (or appreciated it enough) at the time, but it’s fair to say grandpa was the mack daddy of gardening. His knowledge was effortless and intuitive. He knew which conditions made the most luscious vegetables, the prettiest flowers and the most aromatic herbs. He knew how to fend off pests and how to fix any plant problem. If something wasn’t yielding enough fruit or if a branch needed mending, he’d soon be rifling through his tool shed looking for the right implement for the job. His tool shed housed a vast collection of bits and bobs, many of which found their way into the garden – pieces of string, ribbon and tin, wooden sticks, electrical tape, homemade trelaces. There was even a makeshift squirrel trap at one point. (Relax – he wouldn’t kill them. He’d just wait for the squirrel to take the bait, throw a piece of cloth over the cage, get on a bus, and take the squirrel to the park, where I suppose he thought the squirrel rightfully belonged. This was grandpa’s (partially-humane) way of dealing with his arch-nemeses. Let’s ignore the fact that this was really, really far from each squirrel’s actual home, or that one of them actually died of cardiac arrest on that bumpy bus ride to the park. Details, people, details…)
With all of these measures, it was clear that he took great care to make sure his plants could thrive; with a close eye, he would look over them, carefully attending to each one. This was true not only of his plants in the community garden, but also the ones in his backyard garden, my parents’ yard, the neighbour’s yard, the local greenhouse, and the hundreds of plants he tended to in his work as a horticulturist for the city of Montreal.
Like I said – the mack daddy of gardening.
On days when I’d be out pruning, watering and admiring my tiny little garden, I’d think of him and how much care and attention he gave to his plants. I tried to imagine what he would say if he could see me, his black-thumbed granddaughter, actually growing food.
When I think about my initial reluctance toward planting my own vegetable garden, I think that in some ways, it had a lot to do with him. Because, as it turns out, I just wanted to make him proud.
Cucumber-infused gin and tonic – makes 4 drinks
This recipe is an adaptation of Heston Blumenthal’s gin and tonic, which uses a cold-infusion of cucumber and gin. Thanks to the cucumber, it’s lighter and more floral than your standard G&T. For this recipe, I used Hendricks gin, which is distilled using cucumber as one of the primary botanicals. If you don’t have Hendricks, you can still use any gin you have on hand.
- 1 large cucumber, chopped (skin-on if pesticide-free; peeled if not)
- 1/4 L (250 ml) gin
- chilled tonic water (I’m partial to Fentimans)
- 1/2 lemon
- ice cubes
- sprig of fresh rosemary (optional)
Infusion: Put the chopped cucumber into a blender*. Measure out the gin and pour over the cucumber pieces. Blend until smooth and then transfer into a Pyrex measuring cup or glass bowl. Cover and chill overnight to allow for the mixture to infuse.
Extraction: When the mixture is ready, remove from the fridge and strain it using a fine-mesh sieve. Put down on the pulp with a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the pulp that’s left in the sieve.
Preparation: Prepare four highball glasses by stacking them to the top with ice cubes. fill the glass about halfway with the cucumber/gin mixture, then top up with the chilled tonic water. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice into each glass. Insert a long spring of rosemary into each drink and use it as a stir stick. Serve straight away.
*If you don’t have a blender, you can do this with a hand blender, aka a stick blender. If you don’t have that either, you could use a potato masher, or a fork, but it’ll be a bit more work. You might want to consider investing in a good hand blender (or asking Santa Claus for one). It’ll change your life.