As a member of the Order of Canada, I can officiate at citizenship ceremonies. I have done this on three occasions and to celebrate Canada Day and Canada’s 150th birthday, I officiated again in Ajax, Ont.
When we think about what it means to be Canadian, I imagine very few people will think of gardening. Allow me to illuminate you. Gardening is very much a part of being Canadian. Here is how:
Rich history. Long before the Europeans arrived and changed everything here forever, the indigenous people of this land were growing much of their food. The ‘three sisters’ factored large in the daily diet of the Huron peoples in particular. The combination of beans, squash and corn planted in a mound, with a dead fish under them to provide natural nutrients, sustained them. No doubt this is as true for many Europeans who were introduced to the idea by friendly indigenous people.
Welcome! As European settlement spanned the country in the 1880’s, towns located along the Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks competed for the best looking public gardens at railway stations. The idea was to demonstrate to immigrant families a sense of pride in ‘community’ and say ‘welcome’ in bright, colourful displays of flowers. We still do this, it is called Communities in Blooms, http://www.communitiesinbloom.ca/, and more than 270 communities across the country took part last year.
Cultural Mosaic. Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, used this term to describe Canadian culture. It does the job. The gardening experience crosses all cultural and religious boundaries. It is glue for a diverse group of people who form the population of Canada. At Ben Nobleton Park in Toronto, the community garden provides opportunities for residents in this culturally diverse neighbourhood to work together in a joint effort to grow fresh food. Growing tips are shared among volunteer gardeners who come from many faraway places, like the Republic of Congo, Vietnam and Syria. Communication often occurs between people who do not share a common language, but make themselves understood.
During harvest time, each volunteer at Ben Nobleton Park is encouraged to create a dish using the fresh produce from the garden and to bring it to a big gathering where everyone dresses according to the customs of their native land. Can you imagine the colours? Or anything more Canadian than this?
A successful garden in Canada is entirely possible despite the challenges of severe weather. Hail on the prairies, excessive rain on the west coast, late frosts in Central Canada (well, anywhere in Canada), permafrost in the Arctic, salt-wind in the Maritimes and solid rock in Labrador and Newfoundland: these things challenge us and we rise to that challenge. Because we are Canadian gardeners.
It is worth mentioning that we also grow some of the world’s largest pumpkins (we have won that title many times), the sweetest corn, the most abundant tomato crops and for the most part, we are self-sufficient in the fruit and veggies section. And where we are not, we could be with better planning.
We are social people. When gardeners get together there is always much chatter. Take the quietest person (gardener) in the room and put them with other gardeners and you will witness the cure for shyness. We love to share information, stories and ask questions. Gardening is a social experience and, as our Governor General David Johnston said in his landmark book ‘The Idea of Canada’, “We derive happiness from our wealth of social connections.”
Canada has been deemed to be one of the happiest countries on earth. Is it a coincidence that gardens spring from the goodness of the earth?
On a final note, his Excellency David Johnston, in the same book, quotes Saint Augustine, who said this 1,500 years ago, “If you wish to judge the quality of a city, look to see what it cherishes.”
The same may be said of a country. Our green spaces, our parks – urban, provincial and national and of course our gardens, public and private, say something profound about who we are as a nation and what we value.
Gardeners are not just earth-grubbers. We are birders, conservationists, tree huggers, local food boosters and passionate story tellers. Gardening is the most popular outdoor pastime in Canada, next to walking. More than 80% of us grow something green.
To a very large extent, Canadians are gardeners. Welcome to Canada.
Mark Cullen is lawn & garden expert for Home Hardware, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, ‘The New Canadian Garden’ published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.