By Catherine Winter
I love to grow vegetables. Anyone who knows me is well aware of the fact that I pore through seed catalogues every winter, getting all giddy about the different varieties I’ll be able to plant once spring rolls around. Eventually. The snow doesn’t melt completely here until the end of April/early May, so by the time the last frost passes, I’m more than champing at the bit to get my seeds into the ground: I’m pretty much frothing.
The thing is, growing veg on my land is really, really difficult to do.
My home is perched on the side of a mountain, and the only flat, sunny spots on it are the septic field (upon which I can’t grow any food), and the paved driveway. There are a few flat-ish bits here and there which I have taken advantage of, but they have their challenges as well. The 40-foot trees all around my land cast a lot of shade around, the soil is clay and sand atop solid Canadian shield rock, and the unevenness of the ground itself means that raised beds are pretty much out of the question.
Then there’s the weather to contend with. A freak heat wave last May caused all my brassicas to bolt, and a hailstorm in July killed my tender greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Literally all that survived last year were potatoes, sorrel, and the peas I had climbing up the shaded north wall.
This will be my sixth summer living on this property, and I can honestly say that the yields I’ve had from my vegetable-growing efforts have been paltry at best.
Since I’ve had so little luck growing vegetables, I’m moving in another direction this season. Remember that article we posted last year about working with your land, rather than against it? Well, it may have taken me this long to really learn that lesson myself, but yes. Yes, I’ve finally learned what I needed to and will be taking advantage of what I do have available to me, instead of trying to force plants on an area they’re ill suited to.
This is kind of huge for me, since I’m just a raging perfectionist and am normally the type to keep fighting onwards solely for the sake of not giving up. Maybe I’m mellowing in my middling years or something, but I’m recognising that there are many different ways to approach an issue, and compromise is a gentler and sweet technique that my younger self would have benefitted from immensely.
Two summers ago, I let most of my land go fallow just to see what would grow there. I put the mower and snappywhippy thing away, and just let everything go wild.
You know what happened?
I discovered that several dozen medicinal herb and flower species grow wild on my property. St. John’s wort, heal-all, mullein, coltsfoot, evening primrose, jewelweed, yarrow, shepherd’s purse, comfrey, echinacea, wintergreen, bee balm… I could go on, but you get the idea.
Having dreamt of studying herbal medicine for years, I saw this bounty as a sign that it was officially time to pursue that interest, which I have been doing so (with the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine) whenever I have a spare moment. It also made me realise that I could add to this treasure trove instead of fighting to grow things that didn’t want to be there, much like forcing an artistically gifted child to pursue a career in accounting.
Bad fit, no-one’s happy.
Herbs and Flowers
As such, nearly all of my attentions will be put towards growing medicinal herbs, and native pollinator flowers rather than veg. I still have my little culinary herb garden just outside the kitchen door, and I’ll still grow climbing peas up the side of the house because they grow so very well there, but that’s pretty much it.
Since so many medicinal plants already grow here, the ones I’ll be planting and tending are:
- Black Cohosh
- Lemon Balm
- Anise Hyssop
- Mint (in a pot, else it takes over everywhere)
As for flowers, some of the native species I’ve scattered have medicinal properties as well, whilst others are just great for attracting beneficial pollinators. I have asters and lupines growing pretty much everywhere, but this year I’ll be scattering the following:
- Bachelor Buttons
- Black-Eyed Susan
- Scarlet Flax
- Field Poppies
I’ll be tossing around a few non-native species as well, just because I love them so. Hollyhocks and foxgloves will look gorgeous around the perimeter, and I rather like nasturtiums and pansies in window boxes and planters.
The Bottom Line:
Why am I blathering about all of this?
Quite frankly, to reassure those of you who are struggling with your growing endeavours that even seasoned gardening veterans get frustrated and need to shift direction now and then.
I’ve been growing vegetables and herbs in my own garden spaces for 30 years now, with varying degrees of success. I’ve had yields so bountiful that I foisted massive baskets of produce on friends, neighbours, even the postal workers, because I had more than I knew what to do with… and I have had epic failures that would have left me starving to death if there weren’t a grocery store nearby.
The point is, we work with what we have, and flow with the current as best we can.
We do what we’re capable of, especially when those capabilities shift over time. I mean, we’re all in a constant state of growth and flux, and our priorities can change from one day to the next. Family responsibilities may cut down on gardening time, health challenges can limit mobility, and hell: we just might change our minds about what’s important to us over the next few months while we reevaluate what we want to do with our lives.
And that’s absolutely okay. All of it.
Considering how much I love flowers, I have a sneaking suspicion that this year’s garden may be the most smile-inspiring I’ve had yet.
I won’t be growing many vegetables, but I can support local farmers by buying their produce, and be far less stressed out about my own efforts.
Instead, I can focus all my attention on growing plants I adore: those I can transform into healing salves, teas, and tinctures, and that will make me very happy indeed.