I first met Lorraine Johnson during a Jane’s Walk last year where she, along with Nancy Chater, led a small group through the ET Seton Park in Toronto to discuss space, water, history as well as to show us the edible weeds in the Don Valley. Interspersed around Tremco, the largest employer in the Don Valley, Lorraine showed us burdock and its tasty root; garlic mustard, an invasive plant that is good in salad and pesto; dandelions, where the young green leaves can be used in salads; and lastly sumac, a shrub with edible flowers. She had prepared sumac lemonade and garlic mustard bruschetta for us to try! I preferred the bruschetta to the lemonade, but it was exciting to think of what you could forage from a Toronto park.
When I saw Lorraine had written a book, City Farmer, about gardening in the city, I was excited to see what perspective she would bring to the table. Sadly, this wasn’t a ‘how-to’ book about creating your own garden, as I’d love one of those, rather it was an equally awesome empowering read wherein Lorraine shares her passion for gardening. Her tales of procuring gardens in odd and far off places, dilemmas between community gardeners, and her own foils with raising chickens in her Toronto backyard are amusing and engaging. During our walk, she retold her story about making dandelion wine and how it exploded in her basement which is also recounted in the book.
In addition to personal anecdotes, she highlights the importance of local food, with figures showing sometimes local, small-scale operations may not be more environmentally friendly. Obviously the best, most locally grown food is from your own backyard. The other benefits of backyard gardening include people tend to eat more vegetables as well! Schools in the US have started to replace gym classes with gardening classes, as you get exercise with gardening as well as the skills to become a lifelong gardener. What I loved about the book is Lorraine that dispelled my own myth that you need a backyard to have a prolific garden. She highlighted groups within and outside Toronto that encourage community gardening with limited resources. She also features creative ways of gardening, including Marco Pagliarulo‘s balcony pot that houses both a compost and plants in one.
She describes guerilla gardening, where rogue gardeners plant in public places. With a lone tomato plant within a flowerbed, would you stop and ponder its existence? Would you be tempted to pick the ripe tomato? While the public is content with flowering plants, why is it so odd to have edible plants on public property? Why is it so uncommon for people to have vegetables in their front yard? Harvesting fruits and vegetables is typically done with privacy. There is a prolific mulberry tree near the bus stop where I used to work and it always brought a smile to my face when I would see someone pick the berries to snack on as they waited for the bus. There were also a lot more mulberries that landed on the ground, though, recolouring the sidewalk purple.
It wasn’t that long ago, that I said I would not be gardening this year: I had plants on my balcony three years ago, but they would quickly dry out and my red pepper never grew big enough to be picked. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to water my plants often enough, with the hot sticky Toronto summer that has recently dawned upon us. My mom assured me that with a deep-dish planter with moisture-retaining soil, I would have a greater chance of success, so my parents gave me a planter filled with mint, basil, and garlic chives for my birthday.
Consider myself converted to balcony gardener. While I was reading the book, filled with stories of guerilla gardeners planting tomato plants in potholes, I was offered my choice of heirloom tomato plants from Vicki’s Veggies, leftover from their seedling sale. I jumped at the opportunity to snag a few neglected plants that may not otherwise be planted, and precariously balanced 12 tomato plants on my way home on my bike. I was in a tizzy as I read the names of the tomato plants: amazon chocolate, negro azteca, lemon drop, green zebra, indian stripe, ivory pear, tangella cherry, ruby pearl, canabec, green grape cherry, purple cherry… They were initially a bit parched and a bit droopy, and I lost 2 growing tomatoes en route home, but I figured any tomato from the lot would be a bonus. And, I am happy to report I ate my first lemon drop cherry tomato today and it was delicious! No recipe needed, just pluck and plop in your mouth! I look forward to a tomato-, basil- and mint-filled summer.