As I look out the large windows of my tenth floor, mid-town apartment, I see a screened view of the modernist concrete condominium across the way. I can usually see right into the kitchen of the people who live there – people my age, who are in their pajamas by 5pm and cook everything in a microwave oven. I shouldn’t know these things, but the proximity of their building makes them closer neighbours than I’d like to have. When we moved into this building, the large balcony, which was one of the reasons we rented here, had a net that covered the entire view. My wife and daughter, both artists, objected to the grid that hampered the view, but I saw it as a gardener’s opportunity to provide privacy.
I have been a gardener for a very long time but I don’t come from a gardening tradition. My early childhood was spent in Brooklyn, New York, and my memories are of cement, stoop ball, being lined up and searched for chalk pastels (it would be guns now) on entering Kindergarten and a tall, sweet smelling lilac, the only plant memory, in front of my grandparents’ house. That humble house and the entire neighbourhood that was built around it were early Trump family developments. There was no gardening in the family until my Uncle Sol moved to a Long Island house with a yard and started to grow vegetables with a vengeance. He grew cucumbers in the Chinese Elm hedge and I remember sticking my arm in and finding the large, hanging cukes among the leaves. Uncle Sol was a crude fellow and said the cucumbers were like a “horse in heat”. My diminutive Aunt Ceil, his wife, thought the cucumbers were stupid and tasteless – in more ways than one.
When my Uncle moved to Long Island, we moved to Toronto. My father’s family was Canadian and he had an opportunity to join their hardwood flooring business. My father wasn’t into vegetables. He preferred cigars, loose women and gambling. My mother, in a world of her own, thought that suburban Toronto was very dull compared to her native New York. A homeowner for the first time, she hired a Dutch gardener, planted a Chinese Elm hedge and then proceeded to drive over it when she started taking driving lessons. I don’t have a memory of my mother ever being out in the garden again. She smoked American cigarettes, drank copious amounts of coffee, read novels, watched soap operas and waited to move back to the US. It wasn’t until I moved out of the house and joined a commune on Beverley Street that growing a garden actually became a possibility.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’m living in the Ottawa Valley on a 90 hectare farm with neither plumbing nor electricity. A group of us had decided to abandon the city and set up on a ramshackle property with a huge, uninsulated house that overlooked a swampy lake. We grew a market garden and took our produce to the Pembroke market once a week, where the locals avoided the hippies like the plague.
When things went south in hippieland, so did we. I decided to study at the University of Guelph where gardening and all things agricultural came into sharper focus. My parents couldn’t understand what a Jewish boy from Brooklyn was doing studying horticulture. I had two children by then and so my choices, good or bad, were tolerated because of the precious grandchildren. I was the youngest child, but the first to parent, moving me to the front of the line of familial generosity and the down-payment for a hundred-year-old house with a large garden was soon to follow. The house was at the very front of a double lot and the surrounding ornamental garden contained almost 100 rose bushes. Roses were not what we had in mind and a garden renovation began in earnest.
Upon graduating with my Associate Diploma in Agriculture came a position at the University of Guelph Arboretum. In those days, when you graduated you more than likely found a job. I worked for a smart, ambitious woman on projects ranging from identifying all the herbaceous plants growing on the hill of an old gravel pit to measuring the temperature of piles of steaming city leaves mixed with poo. I didn’t take long for me to realize that the lowest rung of an academic ladder wasn’t for me. I enjoyed the work (well, maybe not the leaf piles) but knew that unless I pursued more education, I’d be a drone, though one with benefits, for a very long time.
The house on Glasgow Street continued to be a joy and the garden, full of multiple pleasures, sustained us for years. The roses gave way to more interesting perennials and a vegetable garden became part of the mix. Around this time I started singing for my supper Sunday evenings at the Baker Street Bistro. As my interest in the job at the Arboretum waned, the owner of the bistro, a retired New York Jets football player stranded in a small Ontario town, wanted out. The folly of the young prompted me to believe that I could make a go of the restaurant business and thus began a thirty -year adventure. I might say misadventure. If becoming a horticulturist confounded my parents becoming a restaurateur was almost stroke-inducing.
The restaurant journey was all encompassing. This was a career that took a backseat to absolutely nothing. Running a successful restaurant and then adding a second (somewhat less successful) establishment took all the energy that a couple raising two children could muster. Luckily the garden on Glasgow Street was well established and knew what to do. It thrived until we sold the house and businesses and took a mid-life crisis journey to Ottawa.
In Ottawa, we lived in three different rental houses, none of which had a garden worthy of considering. I grew the odd flower or herb in a planter box and struggled mightily to make a success of a restaurant in a cold town that was dealing with a recession. As a note of interest, we did cater meals for the free trade talks even though we didn’t support the NAFTA politically. Restaurant survival has a way of compromising politics and a sale was a sale. Our venture in Ottawa ultimately failed and we returned to Guelph to pursue further food folly.
After a year of running the restaurant and catering at a recently renovated downtown hotel, we struck a deal and became the food service managers at The Bookshelf Café, arguably the cultural, though not necessarily the culinary, hub of the city. Soon after, we purchased our second home, a 50’s ranch house with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a massive garden that was like an empty canvas waiting to be painted. The garden was surrounded by seven massive trees and created many challenges for a flower grower. The previous owner was a landscape architect who carved out beautiful, sculpted beds that were virtually unplanted and I began an eight year adventure that was both rewarding and expensive.
Gardens can be very therapeutic and my work relationships at the Bookshelf were often challenging. My mother, back from a retirement in Florida, moved in with us at the ripe old age of 90. She was a delight to live with, having outlasted my father, given up the cigarettes but remarkably not the coffee or the soap operas. She often sat in the living room and watched me as I spent many hours working in the garden. While gardening, I could often be heard yelling about the frustrations of my work. “Al, who are you yelling at out there?” She asked in her broad, flat Brooklyn accent. “You’re going to scare the plants!” The garden thrived, though I have to admit that I lost thousands of dollars, spent on plants that wouldn’t grow in the shade. Sadly, things change and gardens are sometimes left behind which was the case when we left small town Guelph for the big city of Toronto.
The early years living in Toronto were spent in a fancy two-story condo in a four-plex that was rented from an old friend. The rent was very reasonable but the apartment had electric heat in the floors, a cathedral ceiling and utilities that were almost as expensive as the rent. There was no place for gardening but I tried to grow some heritage tomatoes in a tiny bed by the garages in back. Auto exhaust fumes and poor soil made for a pathetic yield and I accepted that gardening was once again going to be abandoned. For the first time I felt an actual withdrawal from not gardening. I got involved with a bit of gardening at FoodShare, where I was working, but it wasn’t the same as a garden of my own.
I was relieved when our friend decided to sell the condo and we were forced to move. We chose the apartment we’re currently occupying largely because it had a decent sized balcony that could be planted. I’ve been growing runner beans on the aforementioned netting for the past five summers and the vines create a cozy, private garden that is a genuine pleasure. I’ve managed to grow hydrangeas in large pots that flower beautifully and various planters that are a bounty of blooms and herbs. The balcony garden is an extra room for us in season and even though we’re on the tenth floor, we feel surrounded by beauty.
The other day, while sitting and reading in the living room, my wife looked up and shouted …”there’s a hummingbird …” Sure enough, a tiny bird was darting from bright red flower to bright red flower – gathering nectar from the runner bean blooms growing on our tenth floor balcony. We couldn’t believe it! A hummingbird finds sustenance on the tenth floor of a high rise in Toronto. Glenna said she felt like she was having a religious experience.
The hummingbird has returned many times as the vines continue to bloom despite the large beans that have been produced. A garden is a garden is a garden. No matter where you grow your garden, no matter what size it is, it will bring surprising and bountiful rewards. Get the bikes, camping gear and other detritus off your balcony, buy some big pots which are remarkably affordable and start a garden. You never know who might visit.
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Alvin Rebick has spent most of his career working with food, including owning and operating six restaurants, all listed in ‘Where to Eat in Canada’. Alvin also co-authored two nationally-released cookbook-memoirs with his wife and business partner, Glenna. Over the past eight years Alvin has worked in the non-profit sector to increase and improve access to fresh vegetables and fruits in the hopes of bringing the best possible food to all. He is currently the Project Leader of FoodReach.
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