I Can Regrow That!

I traveled the globe—to become a shelf gardener.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY P. SAVAGE

To understand how I became so excited about growing plants from leftover vegetables on a window shelf in a British Columbia apartment, you’ll need a little background…

Michael and I met five years ago and promptly set about casting off our suburban lives. We moved aboard Michael’s 26’ sailboat to take up the rigors of cruising life in the southern Gulf Islands on Canada’s beautifully rugged West Coast.

Sailing introduced me to a life that demanded ingenuity. There was always something to be repaired, replaced, or rigged. I was thrust into a world of continual gentle sway and swell, of sunshine, rain, wind, and all the pleasures and pains of a life lived in harmony with the outside world.

Paddy met an untimely death. We celebrated her life with a ceremonial burial at sea.

During this time, Michael and I had one plant—Paddy, a callow green shamrock in a 4“ pot we bought on a whim while provisioning at Vancouver’s Granville Island Market. Paddy fared well in the lush West Coast climate as honorary crew member aboard our sailing vessel…only to meet an untimely death at the unforgiving hands of a saltwater dousing during one particularly raucous sail. We celebrated her life with a ceremonial burial at sea.

In our two-and-a-half years aboard our sailboat, Michael and I added two more crew members: first, our daughter, Abigail, and 18 months later, infant Henry. After trying life afloat with two babies, we disembarked and geared up to spend a winter in a rustic cabin on the shores of a northern British Columbia lake. There we collected and carried our own water, cut our own firewood, and hunted and snared rabbits. It was a glorious winter spent close to nature.

But with the dawning of spring, we felt the pull of discovery and moved into a 30’ motor home. We enjoyed a splendid summer along British Columbia’s highways and byways, filled with starts, stops, and general summer fare, in the seemingly endless 80o July and August heat of southern B.C.

About this time I began making comments to friends like “It’s a great life. But I do sometimes miss having a garden.”

My mother-in-law had secured herself a coveted plot in a local community garden. I listened with jealousy to her tales of weeding and soil preparation, basking in her descriptions of mornings spent mulling over the options for what to plant and where.

“Well, you see, the camellias love a good loamy soil. But the snap peas prefer a cooler soil, less dense, and protected with mulch,” she would say.

“And spinach? You’ll have spinach, too, I imagine?”

“No, no, no. Swiss chard, dear.”

I hung on every word, as if the secret to life itself was to be revealed in phrases like well-drained soil, mineral fertilization, or raised beds. I longed for the feel of soil between my fingers, staining my nails, and the glint of fresh homegrown spinach, still clotted between my grinning teeth.

Instead…

“So, what do you think? Should we do it?” Michael asked.

We had just sat down for our nightly game of cribbage after putting the children to bed, our motor home parked by a lake.

“Yes. Yes, we should!” I said. “Let’s spend the winter in Bali.”

Two flights through 16 times zones later found us, toddlers in tow, living in Indonesia for four months over the winter of 2015-16. Our last month there, we rented a villa in the small village of Penestanan in south-central Bali. Our backyard hosted a stand of brilliant bamboo trees, each slim pole swaying with arabesque whimsy. We loved those trees—the way their leaves shivered in the wind, the stalks tall and eager to keep growing.

One afternoon we were dismayed to discover the gardeners hacking down the bounty of bamboo, leaving a thinned, shorn stand of a mere six feet.

“It grow again, my friend. Fast. You no worry,” came the warm assurance of the smiling gardener, his workmate behind him nodding enthusiastically.

The same thing had happened to the six-foot-tall hibiscus plants at our previous rented bungalow in the remote fishing village of Amed on Bali’s northeast coast. That hedge of beauty had been pregnant each morning with voluptuous deep red flowers and dotted with dancing butterflies that stopped to sip its pungent nectar. They, too, got reduced to a cropped copse.

“Komang, you cut the bushes?” I asked our landlord after we returned from an afternoon outing to find our hedge gone.

“Yes. They grow again, Miss Kate. They grow always. I cut again next month, too,” he replied.

To us they were a treat. To him they were a nuisance, needing constant maintenance so they wouldn’t consume the entire house in one leafy-green, red-floral, butterfly-adorned gulp.

Bali was a marvel of green: green rice fields, green fern gullies, green spires of vines and moss in volcanic mountain jungles. Plants spilling with bugs and ripe with condensation, growing out of every corner of soil, reaching sunward and swaying giant green leaves in thunderstorm-kissed winds.

We arrived back in Canada in the chilly mire of March, a few weeks ahead of new leaf buds and fresh grass shoots. We went back to life aboard our rolling motor home and again feasted on the outdoor glory of a Canadian summer.

But we were not prepared to venture the cold months in the motor home.

“I know it makes the most sense. But…but an apartment?” I sighed, as Michael and I set about making our winter plans.

“Yes, an apartment. It’s small, affordable, and, hey, I hear they come with indoor plumbing!” Michael joked.

We decided on a two-bedroom apartment in a small town 30 minutes west of Kamloops in southwest British Columbia, close to family and friends who lived in the city but far enough removed that mule deer roamed the neighborhoods and every garbage can was equipped with a bear-proof lid. Two bedrooms, new carpet and flooring, freshly painted in a calming butter tan hue on the third floor. No balcony. And three windows. Three. Total.

And that’s where I became so excited about growing plants from leftover vegetables on a window shelf (remember the be-ginning of this story?). We moved in mid-September. Still hungry for a garden and facing a long autumn and even longer winter, I began cruising Pinterest for inspiration—and got obsessed with the idea of growing vegetables from cuttings and scraps.

“It says here that you can regrow tons of vegetables,” I exclaimed to Michael. “Even sprout whole fruit trees from grocery store fruit seeds. Celery, lettuce, tomatoes, lemons.”

“I once grew a plant from an avocado seed,” Michael said.

“See? Well, I’m going to try it. I’ll start with something simple. Green onions! I’ll start with green onions.”

Five bulbous root ends off five green onions became the genesis of my garden haven. From there I added a celery nub, the discarded root end of leaf lettuce, three garlic cloves, and the spiky top off a pineapple. Enlivened by the rapid growth and seemingly overnight success of my gardening venture, I assumed the more adventurous challenge of growing from seeds.

I gathered seeds from a green pepper, a lemon, a half-inch thick slice of a Roma tomato, strawberries, and blueberries. The last two took some fine motor skills to retrieve from the fruits, carefully extricating them with a toothpick and placing the seeds on a paper towel before sowing into a small cup of potting soil.

Before long, a hodgepodge of plastic tubs, glass jars, and even a few actual planters was practically covering the counter in our tiny kitchen. I needed a dedicated place for my newest babies. I contemplated purchasing a grow light—but then inspiration hit.

Forget replicating sunlight. Let’s give them the real thing! I’m building a window shelf!

I purchased two rough-plank cedar boards, a couple of connecting brackets, and two 90-degree angle brackets and finally had my own garden—right there along the third and final window of the apartment in our master bedroom. My own space to house and nurture my plants, bathing them each morning in nourishing natural sunlight. I had done it! I had created a garden, with all its promise, work, and reward, in our otherwise stifled apartment.

The excitement of setting a tiny seed, its life encased and shielded from view, into a spot of dirt enraptures me. To wake each day, burst from slumber, and dart to the window to check on each new sprout thrills me. It’s been just over a month now, and my window garden, though still tiny, tender, and new, is thrumming with life and the joys of gardening.

So am I.


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