I recently found myself alone in my father’s garden for the first time since he left us. There was an enormous weight on my shoulders. I now have the responsibility of this garden. How do I identify all these plants? Of course I know many of them, but I used to ask my father, like a child, “What’s this?”
For the houseplants, we had a plan in place! We had already spent a weekend identifying them all with little labels. A beautiful moment between father and son! I used to give funny names to his plants to tease him, he who was so rigorous. So there’s “Creton”, “Cactus Tree” and “Ninja” (I still don’t know how I came to call a plant “Ninja”, or what plant it is, except that it annoyed my dad, and it made me laugh).
Indoor Plants First
Before his career began, my father was already passionate about houseplants. His first self-published writings, À fleur de pot and Houseplant Forum, were newsletters about houseplants. He even wrote an unpublished book on growing plants under artificial light, that preceded “Les vivaces” (“Perennials”), his first book published by Broquet. He once told me that he started writing about gardening in general because houseplants were too niche a subject.
After he was gone, the grandchildren wanted to take home some houseplants from Grandpa as a memento of him. Each one chose one or even several. I could see the concern in their parents’ eyes. Where to put all these plants? But how to say no? They asked me how to care for them. “Wait until the soil is dry before watering and give it plenty of indirect sunlight” was my standard answer, which applies to almost all houseplants. A plant that lost its label became a Pomponus plantus, until I properly identified it. My father, of course, would have known its real name, the history of its cultivation, the meaning of its Latin name, its needs, etc.
An Enormous Legacy
As I write this, I am sitting in his library, a collection of hundreds, perhaps thousands of books on horticulture and botany, which he began some forty years ago. How am I going to absorb all this knowledge? It would take me years to read it all. What reassures me a little is that my father recently confessed to me that he did not systematically read all these books but rather used them as reference works! Phew! Fortunately, I have some time on my hands, and I fully intend to make sure The Laidback Gardener outlives me as well. I don’t know if blogs will still exist by then, or if robots will have taken our place. At least they will still be able to refer to my father’s writings to grow their gardens.
I know that if I have horticultural questions, I can refer to his blog, his thousands of articles or one of his many books. But if I have questions about life, what do I do? I hope those answers are within me. That I became the person I am because of him (and my mother too… no, I didn’t forget you mom, I was just saying that for dramatic effect!).
A Stormy Start
Being a writer or blogger wasn’t in the cards for me when I was young. I was a more rambunctious teenager and young adult than my father would have liked. I could see that it saddened him at times. He did try to encourage me to follow in his footsteps. In the summer, I sometimes worked in his office: filing, video editing, research (I remember one summer when, as part of his research for his book on Canadian gardens, I had to call well-known organizations and gardens. I was so embarrassed!)
For a while, I saw myself as a future author. I studied languages and literature in college (where I spent more time in bars than in classrooms), and I enrolled in English literature at Université Laval. Despite my good grades and the encouragement of my professors to pursue a career in literature, spending my days in windowless classrooms was unbearable. I think my father had unintentionally made me spend so much time outside in his garden that I was unable to be indoors for long without feeling a deep exasperation that only nature could relieve.
A Childhood in a Garden
As a child, I spent my days playing outside. After lunch, my father would kick me out and say, “Come back for dinner! Then, “Come back for supper!” and finally, “Come back before dark! I remember one winter day when I was about four years old, my father sent me to our backyard (fenced in, of course) with instructions not to disturb him. He told me that after a while I started yelling “Daddy! Daddy!” and he found me hanging upside down with my foot caught in the fork of the lilac tree in our yard.
Apparently I had tried to climb the tree to get to the roof of the garage to escape our yard. My dad felt bad, I guess, but not that bad because I continued to spend my days outside. He firmly believed that children should learn to fend for themselves. And that a certain amount of mischief was normal and even desirable.
A Lover of Nature
Years later, in spite of my intention to become an author like my father, I mostly found myself outdoors, in a garden, a park, or in the middle of nature. For a few years, I produced vegetables that I sold to a “select clientele” (friends and family!) in Quebec City. At the same time, I had a part-time job at a petting zoo. I was responsible for feeding and caring for the animals The sheep loved me, the cows wanted nothing to do with me, and the turkeys, what a bunch of ass…!
But my favourites were the goats. I actually worked in Switzerland one summer, in a mountain pasture where cheese was produced. My main task was to go get the goats in the mountains at dawn and bring them back to the farm for milking. If you know anything about goats, you will understand that this is no small task. They are both endearing and unpleasant animals that remind me of myself.
Another summer in Western Canada, my job was planting trees… and cutting them down. So I when I fell into landscaping, the glove fit. I went from labourer to crew chief to project manager in a few years, but my favourite task was designing gardens. Planting design was my favourite task. I spent way too much time on it, often exceeding my budget. As you can probably guess, the common thread in all these jobs was that I inevitably ended up with my hands in the dirt and my clothes full of mud.
Gardener Above All
I remain more of a gardener than an author, unlike my father, who was a writer above all. Over the years, I’ve become more mature. I no longer have the vigor of my 20s, or even my 30s! It’s now possible for me to sit at a desk for several hours without going nuts, but not without getting up every 20 minutes to stretch my legs and take my mind off my work.
I know now that even though my path was winding, and my father sometimes doubted me, he was proud of who I became, and happy that I took over his blog. Somehow I reached the same destination he did, by taking a completely different path. I won’t fill his shoes, because no one could take his place. Instead, I’ll make my own path, alongside his. As if he were with me, even if he is not.