Goodbye Penthouse, Hello Freaky Vegetables

Columns

By Heather Walker

In the spring of 2007 we decided that our city life would not be enough, no matter how many karaoke parties we hosted.

Brock and I were renting the penthouse of a twenty-second storey building on the West Coast: if there was a perfect place to be, this was it. Our balcony was the size of most city dweller’s condos, with an uninterrupted view of the Georgia Strait and Beacon Hill Park. We were in our late twenties, had university degrees and good government jobs, and had found each other: we’d done everything we’d been told to do, and were living the dream. Or at least, the dream we thought we were supposed to have.

That winter and spring our pastimes included: preparing decadent breakfasts of bacon, eggs, potatoes, fried tomatoes and toast; topping one another’s record Tetris scores on our old-school Nintendo Entertainment System; bottling wine at the U-Brew in Cook Street Village and then drinking too much of it; and hosting music jams with left-leaning friends, then picking fights with them over Victoria’s homelessness problem and how it should be dealt with. We were high-income government yuppies with time to kill until our thirties and, presumably, parenthood.

For me, the warning sign was my constant napping. Saturday morning, breakfast eaten, I would wander into our bedroom and lie down in the early sunshine, then sleep away hours at a time. I had nothing better to do.

Brock, meanwhile, spent his weekends rescuing sickly houseplants that our neighbours routinely left by the green garbage bin in the underground parking lot. He bought fifty-pound bags of soil and fish fertilizer and lugged them via elevator twenty-two stories up to our balcony. On weekend afternoons he attended dying poinsettias, amputating diseased limbs and shuffling them into and out of the shade.

One March morning, with twenty-four hours of nothing looming ahead of us, Brock said: “I think I want to be a farmer.”

I immediately agreed. We began stalking real estate listings. Brock’s poinsettias died while we spent hours reading aloud issues of Harrowsmith, noting which artichokes grew best in our Vancouver Island climate. I became passionate about bees. Over dinner one night, after great debate, we decided we were emotionally strong enough to kill our own turkeys.

Meanwhile, Brock’s dad noticed a ten-acre piece of farmland for sale just south of Duncan, about fifty minutes north of Victoria. We made an offer, and took possession on June 1. We spent that first day wearing a trail around the fence line. From decision to ownership, it took us five months. Brock quit his government job to be a full-time farmer a year later.

Heirloom Tomatoes from Heather and Brock's farm

I should clarify that I’ve never much liked dirt, bugs, or physical labour, so when I imagined myself as a farmer the fantasies usually involved me supervising chickens with a glass of sauvignon blanc in hand. Maybe I’d bake an apple pie on the weekend and sell it at the farmer’s market, where some discriminating chef would sample a slice and offer to pay our mortgage in exchange for my pastry crust recipe.

Brock, on the other hand, had worked a few summers on a dairy farm and grew up on his parents’ hobby farm: to some extent, he understood the work ahead of us. He eased me into our new life with a casual suggestion: “Hey, maybe you can be in charge of growing freaky plants.”

I was sold. The seed catalogues were full of Purple Haze carrots, pink popcorn, neon green peas in violet pods, metre-wide pumpkins, and loofah, to name a few. I imagined a produce revolution.  “Kohlrabi” would become a household word. Children would eat their vegetables.

To find the truly freaky vegetables I sought out the heritage section of the seed catalogues. Here, I learned that carrots originated in Afghanistan, where they were red, purple and white. The white ones were most common, since they stored the best. In the seventeenth century the Dutch introduced orange carrots and encouraged their production as a patriotic act.

That went against everything I had believed, carrot-wise.

During this kinky affair with the freaks of the veggie world, I discovered I liked growing things. On my twenty-eighth birthday I did what I have done every April twelfth: exactly what I wanted. In 2008 that meant mixing potting soil with my bare hands in our front yard and transplanting my seventy-five growing tomato babies into gallon pots.

Ah yes, the tomatoes. Perhaps the most obvious result of my newfound love for farming was the very, very large family of tomato plants I produced our first year. The six starter flats of seeds hadn’t seemed unwieldy by our kitchen window in February, and once they’d graduated to four-inch pots Brock just built me a shelf to keep them on. But by April they were gallon-pot sized, and needed more light than our windows provided.

One weekend, like other expanding families, Brock and I built an addition onto our house. The four-by-six space was wrapped with greenhouse plastic, with two levels of shelving and hay bales on the bottom for insulation. With my tomato plants inside, we no longer had to shuttle them into and out of our home every morning and night. We continued to water them frequently, and soon found bright yellow blossoms and even some small green tomatoes.

Then it was May, and Brock said it was time to plant them in the ground.

I’d forgotten about this stage. I wasn’t prepared. We’d spent months protecting the vulnerable plants from cold snaps and window drafts, carefully maintaining ideal moisture, light and nutrient conditions. It seemed cruel to launch my babies into the cold hard reality of the fields. Compromising, I agreed to plant out the token hybrid variety, Early Girl. I was tired that day after a week of office work, but I resisted Brock’s offer of help and carried ten pots out to the designated row, where I pruned off their bottom leaves and buried them up to the neck – a handy tomato trick I’d learned from Brock’s dad, which encourages root growth along the buried stem. Tucking my young plants into their cold spring beds seemed like a significant act, at the time.

Eventually I cut the apron strings and planted out the rest of my tomato herd. They survived two unseasonable frosts, a windstorm and some trespassing slugs. The months passed. One Saturday, using the tomatoes I had grown from seed, I taught myself to make salsa and can. (We have yet to die of botulism.)

Brock and Heather at the farmers' market

That summer my love affair with freaky vegetables continued. I ate purple carrots, my banana melons blossomed, and I coveted the lemon cucumbers a farmer friend sold at the market. I made a few apple pies, and the neighbours raved about my pastry crust. Eventually I learned that, to unwind on a Friday evening, all I had to do was pour a glass of sauvignon blanc, wander outside, and watch my tomatoes grow. I no longer spent the weekend napping: there was too much to do.

And now: it’s been almost five years since we walked onto our farm. Instead of a twenty-second storey view of ocean and sky, we look out on acres of tilled soil and the brightest stars I’ve ever seen. The other day a friend’s Blackberry vibrated: I thought it was a cow mooing. For fun, we visit the organic produce section of Duncan’s grocery stores and compare prices to our farm stand.

After moving to the Cowichan Valley we’ve met many people who grew up on farms and chose a desk job to escape the unceasing labour and the unpredictable weather. I laugh at our decision to give up our lazy days, our willingness to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and our naivety. And I envy those who benefited from 4-H clubs in their adolescence: they know how to properly care for a chicken, when I had to learn from Google and library books.

What if this doesn’t work? If we’ve misjudged the need for a new generation of farmers, or the hard work required, or simply can’t make our mortgage payments, we can reevaluate and move on. Until then, we routinely share the best days we’ve ever had, with Brock slowly transforming our land into tilled rows of delicious organic vegetables, and me spending my evenings and weekends learning how to make cheese, bread and jam, pickle beets, wash eggs, and perform the unlimited other tasks that contribute to our farm lifestyle.

These days, when we eke out time for the occasional party there is no karaoke. But there is often a bonfire, and a sky full of stars.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted January 19, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Great to hear the back story guys – we need more of you – this island is READY!!

    • Posted January 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Root Cellar folks! Brock and I appreciate the support.
      - Heather

  2. Stephen
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Very inspirational!!

    • Posted January 21, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Stephen. It’s been an amazing 5 years for us!
      - Heather

  3. Posted January 18, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Heather. You have impelled me to scour the real estate ads to find a small farm so that I can live a more grounded, connected life. And to go eat a tomato.

    I can’t wait to read more!

    Maeve

    • Posted January 21, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      Mmmmm tomatoes …. Thank you, Maeve! Reading your blog brings me so much pleasure — I’m happy to return the favour.
      - Heather

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Up on the Farm

Heather McLeod


Heather McLeod's fiction has appeared in The New Quarterly and The Winnipeg Review. She has a passion for learning practical skills, and shares her adventures on a blog here.