Saturday, 12 March 2016

Window on the World (or... The Garden, Part 1)

It's that time of year where I grow restless, observing the monochromatic disarray that is my tiny Toronto garden.  A mucky patch of greyish-brown wedged into 600 square feet between house,
garage and adjoining neighbours. It's still too early to do anything of substance out there-- I don't dare remove the mulch in case of a sudden March cold snap. I'm pretty sure I lost my favourite buddleia that way a few years ago. It's too soon to prune, too early to plant. It will be weeks before I can really get my hands dirty.  For the moment I have to satisfy myself with photo-memories of what this drab little place will look like come spring and summer.

People who know me say the only time they ever see me totally relax is when I am wielding a spade and secateurs. It is indeed true that I lose track of time when I am out there, immersed in the needs of my verdant charges. My spirit is at home in this space.  It runs in the family.  Gardening is also my mother's great passion. She actually lives off what she grows-- even when there's ten feet of snow on the ground (more on this in future blogs!). My aunt in Jutland, Denmark, is an avid green thumb with a spectacular garden to show for it.  My sister-in-law in British Columbia produces a mind-boggling array of tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers every summer in her raised beds.

On the one hand, gardening provides a way to be  alone with our thoughts. But it also connects us to the bigger world--sometimes in surprising ways. A couple of summers ago I noticed a monarch butterfly feeding on the buddleia, with something stuck to its wing. Worried that it would impede the insect's ability to fly, I moved in for a closer look and was relieved to see it wasn't an errant piece of sticky litter, but some kind of tag, with writing on it.

I grabbed my camera and zoomed in-- and sure enough-- it was a tag from an organization called MonarchWatch.  Curious, I sent an email to the address and discovered that researchers at the
Late-Summer Guest
University of Kansas-- more than one thousand miles and a 14 hour drive southwest of Toronto-- were happy to hear from me, and learn that one of their taggees was hanging out in my garden.  I discovered that an insect ecologist by the name of Orley R. "Chip" Taylor founded MonarchWatch back in 1992.  According to the organization's website, "the program has produced many new insights into the dynamics of monarch migration." And, as my experience shows, it also connects people, and makes us think about what is happening in the bigger world.

This is just one of so many enlightening moments I've experienced in the garden.  I've realized that this tiny patch of earth represents a microcosm of what is happening on the planet.  In twenty years I've noticed subtle but unmistakable changes inside its four walls. Different things thrive here now than in the past. Hardy, drought resistant plants are winning out over water-and shade-loving species. This is partly a result of reduced shade because my neighbour trimmed back her plum tree last year. But after spending hundreds of hours here every spring, summer and fall, it's obvious there's something bigger happening.  In general, conditions are hotter and drier now. It's unsettling to know that the mercury is predicted to climb even higher in coming years and decades.  But it also gives my puttering a purpose.  I feel like I am doing my small part to create an oasis for creatures struggling to adapt to climate change.  And I feel just a tiny bit more hopeful about the future when I see butterflies flocking here in abundance, joining the bees, ants, beetles and earthworms that call this garden home.