Thursday, 23 May 2013

Practical garden whimsies

The house across the street has a front-yard planter that's shaped like a little wishing well. The planter portion is white with green trim, and the well's roof is shingled in grey - just like the house behind it. It's the kind of front decor that where one might expect to find a trickling pool, or delicate flowers of various heights with a good contrast of colour, tended, perhaps, by a well-painted garden gnome. This particular well, however, is overflowing with rhubarb.

It's the third spring in a row that planter and its abundance of pink stems and wide green leaves has graced the view from my front window. I'm still tickled by the sight of it. There's something daringly eccentric about filling something as whimsical as a wishing well with a plant as practical as rhubarb. Provided one wished for tart, pink, dessert fodder, and sprinkled the well's depths with water rather than throwing in coins, one's wish is nearly bound to come true. All other wishes shall be answered with rhubarb, like a jammed magic eight ball, stuck forever on "ask again later" or "have a nice day."

Front garden edibles tend to get a bad rap. It's as if growing food instead of flowers is somehow unsightly. Granted, I'd be less than excited if a walk around my neighbourhood included homes obscured behind rows of corn, or having all the bare dirt required for hilling potatoes blown into my stroller. What I have seen, however, has been delightful, if a little bit cheeky: zucchinis in a flowerbed, artichokes poking out in rock gardens (that one was in a book - I have no idea if they grow here), and, of course, sunflowers never go amiss, edible seeds or not. Different plants need differing amounts of sun and shade; depending on which direction a gardener's house faces, compounded with the placement of trees, tall bushes, and other buildings, the best spot for beans and tomatoes isn't necessarily going to be in the backyard. Surely vegetable gardens mustn't be restricted to the gardeners on one side of any given street. Such segregation calls for a quiet revolution: raspberries are bushes just the same as roses. Why must they be sent to the back?

I am currently engaged in my own little 'round-the-house gardening. The perfect place for most of sun-loving herbs and vegetables we'd like to plant happens to have a garage on top of it. The pad behind would also do, but ripping up concrete is out of the home-improvement budget for the time being. When we left our rental house to buy our own, we also lost our enormous garden. I don't miss turning and weeding that hard rich clay, nor do I wish that all my Saturdays from May through October were again consumed with planting and thinning, then tending and picking - never mind the snapping and blanching (we had a tremendous bean crop) - but I do miss wandering out back to pick a salad, or basil for the pasta, or chives for an omelet. And our current yard could use some more green space.

Last year, I borrowed a few pots and lined our south-facing pad with sunflowers on the hopes of cooling the concrete. It didn't work, but I did learn the importance of regular watering in container gardens - that dense deep clay plot of yesteryear held moisture like nobody's business. Plastic pots on a concrete pad? Not so much. This year, armed with daily smart phone reminders, I'm trying container gardening again. Over the last few days, between the wind and the rain, the kidlets and I planted the makings of many a salad: tomatoes and basil on the south side in full sun, facing our next neighbour's driveway, lettuce, parsley, mint, and cilantro on the partially sunny west pad behind the house.

The chives were special - given their hardy perennial nature, I wanted to put them in one of the few pots that we actually own so that the kids can divide them as part of their inheritance. Sadly, the one big terracotta I had tagged for chiveliness met a bad end: my littlest garden helper had had so much fun filling it with potting soil that he decided to dump it and start again, breaking the pot in the process (I had left it, of course, on the concrete). Fortunately - both for my love of chives and the mores of poetic justice - our house did come with one other little planter: a plastic one shaped like a great white swan whose back is just waiting to be filled with flowers. It just happens to be sitting on our front stoop.

And so, fellow front-yards-for-food warrior in the house across the street, I see your wishing well of rhubarb. I raise you a swan full of chives. May the first to plant a raspberry hedge win.

6 comments:

  1. You and Joel should talk! He loves container gardening. Last year we got an amazing yield.

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    1. We definitely should! I've been eying those upside-down tomato planters in the Lee Valley catalog, but the idea of actual using them without guidance seems rather daunting. Guess we'll see how my upright tomatoes do for now :)

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  2. I dearly love rhubarb too - and it delights me to picture it billowing out of a wishing well. :-) Alas, my goats broke into my garden and devoured all my rhubarb this year, but hopefully next year I'll get a good crop. :-) Thank you so much for your kind comment on my blog. It is lovely to meet you. :-)

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    1. Oh dear. We haven't had to worry about goats, but I did lose my first strawberry crop to magpies. It seemed every time a berry got even remotely ripe, it was half-eaten the next day. Maybe next year we'll both have better luck with the not-so-wildlife. And you're very welcome for the comment. Thank you for reciprocating :) It's lovely to meet you too!

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  3. Some day I will live in a country where I can grown and/or purchase rhubarb. I miss it so much! I actually broke down and bought 6 stalks (each about a foot long) from the American grocery store on base last summer. (A place I had promised myself I would never buy produce from again due to a variety of freshness problems). Each stalk was no more than 12" long, and I paid $9.00. It was obscene and ridiculous but I promise you, the stewed rhubarb that I was able to eat for the first time in 4 years made it worth it.

    Thinking about Rhubarb makes me a little sad as well, I had always planned to transplant part of my Grandmother's rhubarb plant into a garden of my own. Her plant had fed multiple generations of my family and I wanted to continue the tradition. I still remember watching her in amazement as she broke a stalk off the plant and ate it raw and without sugar. Alas, the house was sold while I was in Korea and she moved to a place that is easier for her to get around in. Perhaps I will go visit the new owners some day, and check to see if it is still there. Maybe they'll let me take a piece for old times sake.

    Wow... one post about rhubarb and you got me waxing nostalgic. ;) Miss you Rachel!

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    1. I tried eating rhubarb raw once, except it was peeled and dipped in the sugar bowl between bites. The experiment was done on the insistence of the children of some friend of my mother's that my family visited when I was little. The host kids insisted they ate their rhubarb like this all the time, but it still felt vaguely forbidden - as an adult, I can't imagine their mom actually knew what they were up to. It was still incredibly sour, and gritty from the sugar. It's a wonder none of us got sick from all the quadruple dipping in a common sugar bowl. I'd rather take my rhubarb stewed any day, especially if there's vanilla ice cream underneath it ;)

      My Grandma's finally taking the plunge to assisted living this summer. There will be heirlooms galore to go through, but the garden's long gone (as in two moves and ten years gone). I still miss being able to wander back there to graze; the strawberries were the best, raspberries a close second. If neither were in season, there were always chives.

      There. Now we've both gone nostalgic ;) Miss you too!

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