by Arlene Becker.
We have been making gardens of one sort or another ever since our house in Ottawa began in 1973.
Although many of us who have been assigned here have peasant ancestries and other connections to the earth, it was not this that started us in this direction. It was our foundress Catherine. We were starting the first poustinia house, and in teaching us how to do this, one of the things she told us was that the poustiniks in Russia tended little gardens.
Consequently not long after arriving on Parent Street, because the austere building loaned to us by the archdiocese had almost no yard, we began growing tomatoes and flowers in containers on the balconies. But we didn’t just stick with containers. We soon branched out into planting four o’clock tubers in front of the building.
Four and a half years later, when we moved to our next location, a house on McLeod Street, we plunged into restoring our backyard, which bordered a car radiator business, so that we could have a vegetable garden. Then, like the Italians and Orientals, we advanced to tomatoes in the front lawn. Our landlord, who was Greek, didn’t mind.
About five years later, we moved again, this time to Lisgar Street, where we started gardening from scratch, meaning that once again we had to restore the soil.
This time Martha Shepherd was with me, and she began to perfect the art of front yard flower gardening (that is the entire front), an approach which was ahead of its time. Meanwhile I eked out a postage stamp vegetable garden in the back.
The Front Yard
The front yard grew into a local phenomenon, and we met a number of people while tending it.
Then we moved again, this time to Kensington.
Here there was land. We refurbished the existing flower and vegetable beds left by the original owners, who had used chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (We could tell from the lifeless soil, which had no organic matter and nary a worm in sight.) By much sheet composting and mulching we gradually restored these gardens.
Fortunately, our landlord was basically absent except for the yearly pick-up of post-dated rent checks or when we urgently informed him about a threatening structural damage to the house. This made it easier to “liberate” an inch or two of the lawn periodically. So, as the years passed, vegetables and flowers grew, and lawn mysteriously shrank.
Then in April 2000 our landlord informed us that he had decided to sell the house. We were given two months to either buy it or find another place.
To make a long story short, the decision was made to buy it, and money was donated.
At this point, due to an invasion of white grubs, the front lawn was virtually dead. Of course the very first thing Martha did after the deed of purchase was sealed was to plant the new front garden.
In a few months this dead lawn became a garden enclosed, bringing joy to those who came to our house to talk or to make poustinias, and to our neighbors and passersby.
As our yard gradually changed from sterile earth to a flourishing oasis of flowers and vegetables, it has attracted many animals, birds and insects (no toads yet), so many, in fact, that we now invite the Holy Angels to keep order.
Never mind that this is a city containing many lethal weapons (cars). The chipmunks are flashes of movement between the hostas and the broccoli, and the squirrels quarrel and beg. The raccoons make a big racket at night, and a skunk slinks past in early morning.
The cardinals and sparrows feed their fledglings, and rabbits appear, along with ground hogs and even the occasional duck. There is even a yellow parakeet who astonishes us each time he visits.
And Canada geese, who happen to have a flight pattern right over our house, migrate by the thousands every spring and fall, adding an energy of movement, beauty, and order.
These are just some of the rewards we have reaped from practicing the poustinik’s call to cosmic tenderness towards all creation.
However the peaceable kingdom of the lamb lying down with the lion still lies ahead—as do raccoons who don’t eat beets!
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