Editorial

The Man Behind the Gardener

On December 3, I read this eulogy at the funeral of my father, Larry Hodgson, who died on October 26, 2022. Since he was well loved by his audience and readers, I wanted to share it with you, so you can get to know the person behind the gardener a little better.

Larry dans sa verrière entouré de ses plantes d'intérieur.
Larry in his solarium surrounded by his houseplants.

I won’t try to tell you what kind of man my father was. If you’re here, it’s because you knew him, a little or a lot. I could tell you that he was generous, patient, hard-working, etc. But those are only words. I prefer to tell you stories. Then you can see for yourselves what he was like and choose the words that seem right to you.

As I was thinking about what I was going to say to you today, I was trying to remember the moments that he and I spent together. But you know how it is: when you make an effort to remember something … you suddenly don’t remember anything at all. You have to let the memories come by themselves. So while I let the inspiration come, I’ll share with you some stories of friendship and family from when Larry was growing up in Toronto.

Larry avec son père
Larry with his father, who instilled in him a love of gardening.

Growing Up in Ontario

Larry’s little sister told me this:

One day he was driving me somewhere and we got lost. We kept driving and I finally realized that we were going the wrong way. I asked him, “Are we lost?” He answered: “I know where we are. We’re somewhere in Toronto. I’m just taking the scenic route.” We spent a beautiful day together and never got to our destination. Instead, we explored the city. We laughed, joked and had one of the best days of my childhood. This is so typical of his relaxed attitude to life. Getting lost was never a reason to panic—it was just an opportunity to discover another way.

His brother told me this story:

When we were young, your father would sit on the couch and read the comics in the newspaper and laugh out loud. When he was done, he would put the newspaper down and leave the room. I would pick it up and read the same comics, but I couldn’t figure out what was so funny! He found joy and laughter in the dumbest things. He was also afraid to go down to the basement because he thought a monster lived there. So he used to drag me down there with him so he could throw me at the monster if necessary.

Finally, his other sister told me the following anecdote:

When we were young, Larry planted blue hyacinths on the side of the hill in our back yard. It was such a beautiful sight every spring! I never cut the grass until the bloom was over. They continued to spread for 45 years until I moved. And it wouldn’t surprise me if they were still there today.

Buying Dirt?

All of his siblings told me the same story about bags of soil that he had once bought. Apparently, when he was young, my father had used his allowance money to buy bags of soil. Someone asked him, “Why did you buy dirt when the garden is full of it?” Without batting an eye, he had replied, “Because it was on sale,” as if that were the most normal thing for a child to do. My father had been a serious gardener from a very young age (and apparently was always cheap)!

Larry avec son frère et ses sœurs.
Larry with his brother and sisters.

Best Friend

My father was a very busy person. I don’t really remember him having many friends. I only remember one person whom he really called a friend and not just a college or an acquaintance. This friend told me about their childhood together in Scarborough:

My brother and I knew Larry from the time we attended H.A. Halbert Public School in Scarborough. I think I met Larry in grade five or six and we quickly became best friends. We liked the same things (books, reading and walking) as we hated the same things (organized sports and physical education). I remember being forced to play soccer, so Larry and I would completely neglect the game and the ball during the game; we would walk in the opposite direction as soon as the ball came near us. What fun!

Larry got along with everyone, but that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind. He was also an adventurous guy: he joined the book club and the theater group, and he took every language course available, including French and German. He often amazed me with his taste for novelty. I remember him telling everyone that he was going to move to Quebec and learn French. That was where he intended to live. His adventures had begun.

Larry mangeant du gâteau
Larry in Quebec City in 1978.

Arrival in Quebec City

True to his plans, my father left Toronto, moved to Quebec City and studied French at Laval University. He lived on Charles Avenue in Sillery, across from my maternal grandparents. I was told that all the girls in the neighbourhood had noticed this tall, handsome Ontarian with his magnificent red beard. That’s where he met his first wife, my mother.

She told me this:

When Larry worked in an office, he used their typewriter at lunchtime to type his articles. Even though we didn’t have much money at the time, I used our Sears credit card to buy him his very first electric typewriter. I remember when I gave it to him, he started crying. He could now work and type from home and was no longer dependent on the office machine.

Larry avec son fils Mathieu, bébé
Larry with his son Mathieu.

A Devoted Father

Larry loved to take care of me. When I was very young, my father and I bathed together. Those are my earliest memories: him and me, both naked in the bathtub. I also remember eating carrots in the little garden at the edge of the garage in Sillery. We didn’t even wipe them off, but pulled them out of the ground and popped them right in our mouths.

He had built me a small wooden house. I don’t remember him being very good with his hands. But in those days we didn’t have much money, so he made what he could himself. One year, he made Christmas decorations out of toilet paper rolls and construction paper: Santa Claus with his sleigh and reindeer. And then to put me to sleep, every night he would sing me songs and read me stories. I was also told that when he was writing from home, at the beginning of his career, he would hold me on his lap while working. We would go to the local swimming pool several times a week. We would play shark together for hours. He never got tired.

Larry et Mathieu à la piscine
Larry and Mathieu at the pool, as always.

He believed in the benefits of the outdoors. When I was a little older, he often sent me out to play by myself. It also gave him time to work. I remember one day he unintentionally left me hanging upside down from a tree, my foot caught in the fork of a lilac branch I was trying to climb. I stayed in that position for a long time before he realized that the game had gone wrong.

Larry et son épouse en costume disco
Larry and his wife at a disco office party.

Marriage… take two

It was at that time that he met his second wife, in an office where my father was working temporarily to make ends meet. He said he heard a heavenly laughter from the other side of the office. The clouds parted and a light came out to guide him. He found a pretty little woman with beautiful blue eyes. They lived happily ever after, but had plenty of children already. I still remember waking up one morning and finding a new pair of boots at the entrance to our apartment. I was happy!

Roaring Laughter

Do you remember his laugh? The people at the Quebec Art Company, the English-language amateur theatre group in Quebec City, of which my father and I were members for decades, know his laugh very well. Larry’s presence in the audience for one of their shows was a guarantee of success: he laughed so hard that the whole audience followed!

Larry en brassière de noix de coco
Larry in a coconut bra at a performance of the musical South Pacific with the Quebec Art Company.

When I was about 13, we went to see The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear with some of my friends. He laughed so hard throughout the whole movie that I was embarrassed! It’s funny because he often told me later how his father would chat with just about anyone, and that it embarrassed him enormously. He too became like that. Unfortunately, so did I. My father firmly believed that it was a parent’s duty to embarrass their children.

A Father and a Teenager

When you’re a teenager, you don’t really think about your parents all that much. I remember him working all the time, but he always had time for me when I needed it. A discussion or a favor? No hesitation. He would stop everything.

Larry à son bureau plein de piles de papier
The mess Larry was working in.

At one point I asked him how to grow cannabis. I knew my dad didn’t like drugs at all, but he was so happy that I was interested in horticulture that he gave me a book on growing tomatoes. It’s the same as growing cannabis, he told me. And sure enough, I used that book to grow some pot in my bedroom without him knowing.

When my father wanted to have an important conversation with me, it was always at the dining room table. He would say something like, “Mathieu, I’d like to talk to you about something serious.” Just the fact that I was sitting there indicated that it was going to be serious, so I could see it coming.

The first time was the traditional sex talk. I don’t remember the details, it was embarrassing, but I remember him saying to me: “Hey, if you prefer guys to girls, that’s okay. And if you’re not sure, that’s okay too.” I didn’t even know what homosexuality was at the time, but I’m glad he told me I had that choice. A few years later, sitting at the same table, he told me that my uncle was gay. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that everyone knew except him!

The Disease

The last time we had a serious conversation together was when he told me he had pulmonary fibrosis. That was six or seven years ago. Sitting at the dining room table. At the time he was given 1 or 2 years to live. You could say he defied the odds. That was the last serious conversation we had.

Larry et Mathieu portant des t-shirts avec des visages de chien
Like Father, like Son!

After that it was just fun! We talked about plants, science, nature. And we laughed, we said so much nonsense together, like two children, that we choked with laughter. Everything was open game, even death!

I used to tease him a lot, give his plants ridiculous names, and he couldn’t help but correct me. He was so strict that he couldn’t let it go. For years, he corrected me on the cactus tree, as I called it. “No, it’s a… (I’m not sure… I called it the cactus tree so much that I don’t know its real name anymore)”. It was only in his last months that he stopped correcting me.

Working Tirelessly

During those months, he worked all the time. He pushed his body as far as he could. He still had things to accomplish. In his final weeks, he was waiting to hear from GardenComm, the international association of garden communicators. He was a finalist for the Blog of the Year award, and he wanted to be there at the virtual event, to receive the award in case he won. And yes, he did win, not even a week before he was hospitalized.

I got the call from my stepmother. My father was not well. A few minutes later, my bags were packed and I was on my way to Quebec City. When I arrived, I learned that my father had insisted on finishing his last article for the newspaper Le soleil before being taken to the hospital by ambulance. He really wanted to finish it! I think he accomplished quite a bit in life: a 40-year career, 65 books, 38 years of columns in Le soleil, television, radio, international awards… and a blog that will outlive him.

Larry devant son mur vert
Larry in front of his green wall.

The Green Wall

The only thing he would have liked to take with him in death was his green wall! In his bathroom, there is a wall made of cork bark. The plants grow directly on the bark. We rebuilt it last year because the bark had started to rot on the original wall, which was almost 20 years old. During the fall, we added so many plants to it that they didn’t fit anymore. Sometimes I would find my father standing in front of his wall, admiring it. Looking at the life growing on his green wall. Even when he was brushing his teeth, he was looking at his green wall.

In his last days, he asked me to film his green wall so he could watch and hear it in his final moments, he wanted it to be the last thing he saw. I put the video on his laptop at his bedside so he could watch it at his leisure. But when the time came, when the whole family was gathered around his bed, he wasn’t looking at his wall, he was looking at us.

Larry wasn’t just a gardener or an author, he was a husband, a father, a father-in-law, a brother, a friend, a grandfather. We will miss him. His books, his articles, his ideas remain, but the man is gone. I hope that a little of him will remain in each of us. I know he will always be with me.

Mathieu manages the jardinierparesseux.com and laidbackgardener.blog websites. He is also a garden designer for a landscaping company in Montreal, Canada. Although he loves contributing to the blog, he prefers fishing.

27 comments on “The Man Behind the Gardener

  1. Douglas Woosley

    I USE EPSOM SALTS TO MAKE MY GIANT VEGETABLES GROW LONGER.HYDROGENPEROXIDE FOR OXYGEN.KEEPS THEM HEALTHY.AND FISH EMULSION

  2. Brittany Taylor

    I cried reading that your father was looking at you in his very last moments.

  3. your dad is truly awesome!

  4. My most heartfelt condolences, Mathieu. I am grateful to you for sharing these beautiful stories and photos, and to your father for bringing such enthusiasm, as well as light and levity, to the topic of growing plants. The articles on this blog are so encouraging and entertaining and I have grown in confidence tremendously. Your father’s spirit will live on in our hearts and, of course, in our gardens – I know I will think of him and smile when I pick a fresh carrot from the soil!

  5. jessica crawford

    Thank you for sharing this eulogy of your dad, Mathieu. Had to smile a few times, especially his response to (you) growing cannabis! I too wish I could hear his laugh!

  6. Thank you, Mathieu, for the informative and moving eulogy. All readers learned so much from your father’s daily blog. And you and your partners are carrying that important work on–and very well, too!

  7. Lucy inouye

    Such a beautiful eulogy. Even though we never met, I wish I could hear his laugh.

  8. Louise Clarke

    I fondly remember Larry as a Garden Communicators fellow member. I enjoyed my visit to his house where he proudly showed me his green wall in the bathroom. I treasure the cutting he gave me of Epiphyllum anguliger (? Spelling), which has grown into a handsome plant, which is of course named Larry.

  9. Denise Schreiber

    I would always practice my very bad high school French on Larry every year at the Garden Writers Conference where he would correct me. At our after party he was always the first one on the dance floor, dancing until they threw us out of the room. We always laughed together.

  10. Linda Hink

    Matthieu, yes Larry was a devoted father. He always mentioned you over the years when he had supper here before speaking to the Dorval garden club or library. I was always amazed that he would drive home the same night. We were fellow members from the province of Quebec of Garden Writers Association. So sad he never made it to my garden at our Dorval island cottage; often talked about it and even planned one of his tours here but didn’t come to be.

  11. Cheryl Rimmer

    It was such an honor and a whole lot of fun knowing Larry and watching you grow into the thoughtful and kind man that you are. So much goodness, just like your Dad. You got this!

  12. Your special relationship evolved from father and son into the best of friends. The best kind.

  13. A lovely tribute, Thank you for writing this. I had the pleasure of meeting Larry during a Garden Writers Symposium in Quebec. He was kind and generous with knowledge and support of Garden writers!

  14. Meredith R

    Thank you, Mathieu, for sharing such a loving and personal eulogy. I had the honour of meeting your dad on three occasions: two at our garden club meetings and once again when he accompanied us on a bus tour of Quebec City gardens…including, unexpectedly, his own! I remember climbing the steep steps from the street and going around into the back garden, where Larry pointed out various plants among the exuberance, shall we say, of his yard. Then he gleefully turned to me and said, “Come see my bathroom!” How odd, I thought.

    Larry positively beamed as he explained how his living wall was built, its self-watering drip irrigation, and the joy it brought him was palpable. I have never forgotten it and have often wondered how I would build something similar if I could. (I am delighted to see your video of it.) Your dad evoked joy and wonder and a thirst for living. He may be physically absent, but he is just “away”, living on in all of us whom he touched with his knowledge, humour, and generosity.

  15. Larry was a great guy. I met him in the early 1999s when I joined what was then called Garden Writers Assocation of America. He and I were both in Region 7 (the rest of the world!). My fondest memory was dancing with him at the party evening at Longwood during the symposium. The Conservatory had become a huge ballroom and there was a jazz orchestra. He made me feel that I was a brilliant dancer as he moved around the floor with such grace! What a fun person and so full of knowledge!
    Thank you for your lovely words about him!
    Barbara Segall Suffolk, England.

  16. Helen Battersby

    Your father was such a great guy, Mathieu. I wish I’d known him as well in life as I’m coming to know him after his passing. Thank you for sharing these lovely memories.

  17. I was a brand new member of a garden club in Kansas City and felt totally inept compared to all the other amazing longtime gardening members. In just the beginning of only my second year I was asked to be co-chair of the horticulture committee. It was my responsibility to give a brief report on something horticulturally significant at our monthly meeting. That is when I found your dad’s “Laidback Gardener” blog!!! It has (saved me) provided me information time and again to share! Thanks to your father and to you for continuing his legacy.

  18. Bill Russell

    Lovely. And yes, what a laugh!

  19. Thank you. Such a beautiful tribute to you father. He was an impressive and inspirational human being. You are definitely his son.

  20. A beautiful tribute to your father, Mathieu. Thank you. I was introduced to him only recently via this blog but his generous spirit and passion were so apparent in his writing. He is someone I would have loved to know.

  21. lynnegfitzgerald

    Mathieu, Thank you so much for introducing us to the man …..your father. I would have loved to have been a neighbour. I am so happy you are carrying his torch I’m sure he’s smiling now.

  22. I appreciate your eulogy. It really draws a multi dimensional picture of your dad and what he most appreciated in life. Thank you.

  23. cactus--leslie

    lovely. Thank you for sharing

  24. Thank you Mathieu.
    God bless you.
    Both Larry and you loved and appreciated.

  25. What a beautiful post. Your father sounds like a man we all would have loved to know personally. Thank you for keeping his blog going.

  26. I’m in the UK but I always feel welcome on this blog. What an amazing tribute to your dad. He will continue to be a great character and inspiration to us all. He will be very proud of you as you are of him. Thank you for taking the baton xx

  27. Your father was a gardening force who generously shared information with all us who find solace in our gardens.

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