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A new docuseries showcases one-of-a-kind horticultural achievements, while exploring the deep connection between gardener and garden
The idea for Visionary Gardeners may have been percolating long before Canadians in lockdown started to dream of reconnecting with nature, but the release of this series, where interesting characters tend to unusual plots of land, couldn’t come at a better time. I think we all kind of need that connection, right? says documentary filmmaker Ian Toews. Maybe there was a certain insecurity about life and food supply—and also, people having time on their hands [during the pandemic]. We really are pretty basic creatures in a lot of ways, meaning that we ought to be connected to nature and to the earth, the wind and the cycles of weather. We sometimes forget that.
Toews had previously dug into horticulture on Ageless Gardens, which means his hands were already in the dirt, so to speak, when the idea for a follow-up came to him. I wanted to get a little bit deeper with the details of what people think when they’re gardening, he says. I would sit and talk to people about why you garden, how you garden and gardening philosophies. We didn’t have time for that in the other series. I thought, there’s a need not being met here.
The series, which debuted March 7th and consists of five half-hour episodes, has nothing but time for these musings, which tickled a director whose true passion is spending time with his subjects and really getting to know what makes them tick. We talked to these gardeners about what motivates them and what their deep values and beliefs are, Toews explains. Some of them are older, so they’ve been gardening for decades. Some are quite new, but they’re full of enthusiasm and knowledge. We were really looking for innovative or deep-thinking gardeners.
Most of the episodes have a thematic connection, starting with the first episode featuring two gardeners inspired by the rock formations around them. But some instalments see connections in contrast. It’s funny how the mind works, because as we edited and worked on the footage, we started to see connections that we could approach, says Toews. You start to see all those different ways you can connect to people’s seemingly disparate ideas.
Although the show opens the audience up to some extraordinary vistas, the focus, for the filmmaker, was always going to be on the people doing the planting. We probably defer more to the character and the ideas, he muses. There are a few episodes where you barely see them do anything with plants. As long as the ideas are profound and compelling, that can carry it. And these unique characters represent quite a broad church. There’s a young woman from Winnipeg, just full of energy, and she’s devoted her whole life to gardening for her family and grows food for the public, which she gives to food banks. Her whole life is centred around sharing, Toews explains. We also interview a guy in Ontario, who’s 84 years old and really philosophical about the end of his time in the garden. This is a really touching episode, because we think about the measure of one’s life.
For the documentarian, this series was a return to basics, both in terms of long-form interviewing and the ability to explore exciting new terrains. It’s been a while since I did that kind of adventuring, Toews admits. To get up on the mountains was pretty exciting. It was really rewarding.
But perhaps even more rewarding was discovering each subject’s way of connecting their gardening practices to a bigger belief system or set of values. The well-known philosopher John Ralston Saul has really strong beliefs about Canada and his origins as related to colonial history, and how we got to where we are now, and he ties that all back into gardening, Toews says, previewing the subject of his second episode. That strikes me as a really valuable thing about the practice.
While Toews’ latest foray into nature television is an opportunity to excite people about the potentials of unusual gardening, what he hopes is that viewers who have previously not watched his shows might get inspired to make their own mark on the world. I think there’s a lot of established gardeners, middle-aged and older, that we’ve already communicated with through our other series, but I’m quite hopeful that younger folks are going to be engaged as well, he says. I’m hoping that people actually go from thinking to actually doing it, and they realize, ‘Wow, digging around in the soil and watching a seed turn into a flower or food, it’s pretty exciting and pretty rewarding.’
Visionary Gardeners airs Mondays at 6 p.m. on Vision