R u a gardener?

YUGs: Young urban gardeners are determined to grow their own...

Credit: Luc Latulippe

Hip city dudes take on gardening

Saying you like gardening is as pointless as saying you like kittens or babies. The reasons are both obvious and inexplicable, and any attempt to explain them will be a cliché. It’s as ridiculous as people who say they like food, as if that makes them special.

But this year, more people than ever are gardening, and are talking about it in blogs and private discussions. Many young urbanites are exercising their green thumbs for the first time purely for enjoyment; others say gardening has gone beyond a hobby to become something with deep political and cultural roots.

“Our orders are already double what they were this time last year,” says Dan Jason, the owner of 22-year- old Salt Spring Seeds. In his first year he sold a few hundred packages of eight types of seeds. Sales increased steadily every year, grew 30 per cent last year, then “exploded” last October, even though sales don’t usually start until late February.

He attributes the change to “a whole new generation,” adding, “There’s the financial collapse, the poisoning of food, and health and safety factors.” But it’s more than that, he says: “It’s indescribable… it’s almost like a seed is germinating.”

There are still many old-school gardeners, like my mom, who tend to know Latin plant names and terms such as “alkalinity.” But added to that number are the young gardeners who might refer to themselves as locavores, many of whom have read books such as The 100-Mile Diet and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and who know all about “food security.”

The new generation of young urban gardeners tend to describe themselves as enthusiastic, rather than knowledgeable; Jason says they have the attitude, “I can do this, and I’ll figure it out.” Last year, Elissa Smith, 24, and two roommates dug up a patch of lawn in their East Vancouver backyard and planted a few vegetables. “We had these visions of having big beefy broccoli like in the store, but they looked kind of like a toothbrush,” she says. “But it was so much fun.”

Elissa and her friends didn’t read any books, but got a bit of advice from their parents and landlord. “We planted a bunch of stuff in a dark corner,” she says, then laughs. “I guess we won’t do that again.” This year, they plan to grow several more vegetables, and have started seeds in their basement.

James MacKinnon, co-author of The 100-Mile Diet, thinks gardening’s allure to first-timers lies partly in its role as an antidote to the increasing technology of work. The draw lies partly in fun, but largely in magic, he adds. When he grew his first garden at age 20, MacKinnon says, when the broccoli popped up he “really and truly felt like I had aided and abetted a miracle.”

The closest Robert Mackie ever got to growing anything before was Chia Pets. But this year, the 26-year-old web developer plans to grow 10 pots of herbs on the windowsill of his West End apartment. He usually spends his spare time going to concerts, particularly alternative rock and electronica, but one weekend this spring he started germinating seeds after researching online, and getting some advice from his mom.

“Nothing has even started growing yet, but it already has a kind of Zen, relaxing quality,” he says with a laugh. “Just even tending to the soil.” He plans to one day make a meal for his friends, using his own herbs.

“My friend just loves dill pickles,” says Corinne Leroux, a 25-year-old graphic designer. “So if I can get the cucumbers to grow, we’re going to make some with her grandma’s recipe.” Last year, her only tomato was eaten by a slug, but she’s not deterred.

“It’ll be really cool to have a summer barbecue and have all the food be stuff I’ve grown,” she says. “But we’ll just see what works out.” She laughs.

Read past Vanessa Richmond columns here