Gayla Trail's Urban Gardening

Gayla Trail, creator of and author of You Grow Girl: The Ground-breaking Guide to Gardening, lives and gardens in Toronto.

November 26, 2010

Gayla Trail, creator of and author of You Grow Girl: The Ground-breaking Guide to Gardening, lives and gardens in Toronto.

Mine is not your typical gardener's story. There was no rosy-cheeked matriarch passing down generations-old cultivation techniques, or musty jars of seeds smuggled in suitcases on an epic journey from The Old Country. There were no charmed childhood summers on the farm or dewy early-morning strolls through the back garden learning to appreciate the taste of a juicy vine-ripened tomato. Mine are winced-face memories of tomatoes from a can smooshed into a pot of macaroni and cheese from the box, thank-you-very-much. There was no glorious garden in my early days. There was a "backyard"--it was about the size of Tammy Faye's doghouse's air conditioner. Some marijuana seeds fell there once, an unintended crop that flourished until the cops found it.

After years of trying to come to terms with my story, I am learning to embrace my experiences and to see how the messy nature of my real story is much like the stories of most human beings and, dare I say, even gardeners. I am seeing how these experiences have led me to a worldview that sometimes turns stifling old traditions about "The Garden" on its head. And this is a good thing, because if I did not discover gardening down a less-traveled path, there never would have been a garden in my life at all. Now I have three.

I am an urbanite through and through. Living in the city means I garden in the city, an experience that has proven to be a great challenge and an equally great joy. The space that inspired me most is also the least expected--the barren surface of the roof attached to my apartment. My early attempts to green this space produced a series of failures sprinkled with the odd success and plenty of "Aha!" moments. Rooftops tend to make for rather extreme and unlikely grow ops. Up in the air without protective barriers, sun, heat, and wind are all unfiltered. The key is learning how to juggle them. There is no outdoor tap. Water, and lots of it, must be hauled daily, if not twice daily, in sloshing buckets from the kitchen sink through the living room to garbage pails doubling as tomato planters outdoors. These extreme conditions make for a garden that is utterly demanding yet highly enviable. Food crops love it and urban critters love the crops. It is my most productive food garden and my favorite place to be. But I don't own it. Gardening in the city is about knowing that I may have to pack it up on a dime and haul it away or leave it all behind.

Urban gardens are invariably transient, unless you are one of the few who can afford a house with a backyard in an exploding housing market. But backyards in the city are narrow and shady anyway. At least that's what I say to placate a secret desire to have one. I don't own this land/boulevard/tar-paper roof; the choices I make are formed by a total awareness that I am not going to be gardening here forever. Nothing has forced this dynamic more to the foreground of my consciousness than a patch of tired-out dirt stuck between a busy thoroughfare and the brick wall of our building. This is my guerilla garden. I came to see this rotten old spot as a potential Eden shortly after the transformation of the roof was under way. It was the patch of soil I longed to dig my fingers into, the connection to rich, luscious earth that buckets of potting mix could not supply. Of course, it has never been quite that simple. But it certainly has been a whole lot more interesting. First there was the soil: dead, dry, and probably toxic. Then the dirty needles, broken bottles, fast food wrappers, dog poops, discarded shoes, and the assorted and sundry. Urban detritus multiplies quickly and neighbors are not always neighborly. Forget connecting to the earth; I garden with a pair of salad tongs and a hazmat suit.

The one thing I have learned is this: The act of gardening in the city requires a committed gardener, but it also requires cooperation from the community. In my most utopian fantasies, I imagine a city where everyone feels a sense of shared responsibility and entitlement to shaping all spaces within their communities, from their own front yards to the so-called waste spaces where there is no literal ownership and no personal financial gain. But realistically, what a garden growing on a high-traffic, urban street corner needs most is that people agree not to destroy it, that they pick up after their dogs and throw their garbage in the bin.

My third garden is a 9-by-11-foot raised bed in a local community garden, the kind of space where people come together collectively to cultivate land. Located in a fallow plot sided by an alley, train tracks, and a beer store, this garden is my version of lovely. I go there to hear the birds sing, escape the street, and exercise my imagination.

They say three is a magic number, and it seems that my raucous gang of gardens come together to form a gardening experience that is odd, unexpected, challenging, and deeply satisfying all at once. Why do I continue to garden in these spaces given the difficulties I have experienced? Surely I would prefer a proper garden, a nice, quiet farm in the country. While I will admit to entertaining the fantasy at times, I can't imagine learning what I have learned here anywhere else. These gardens have taught me about commitment, perseverance, determination, my place in a community and my responsibility to it.

Gardening, as you know from your own experience, is not a homogeneous act, defined by only charming yarns and delightful tales. Sometimes it is hard but I love it. Sometimes it is heartbreaking and I still love it. I need to do this. I must do this. And no matter our differences, if you're a gardener, you must do it, too.