Topics: Ethical Living | Opinion

On grief and the healing power of gardening

A writer reflects on how growing tomatoes is helping him find peace while dealing with the loss of loved ones, including his son.


I have this terrible feeling that I’ve just made a big mistake: I think I planted my tomatoes too early in my backyard garden.

I did it on the Thursday leading into the May 24 Victoria Day weekend. The sun was strong, the temperatures warm. This is the time when gardeners in southern Ontario traditionally start planting. But I had learned many years ago that I would get a better crop of tomatoes if I put the plants in the ground a couple of weeks after the Victoria Day weekend. The air temperature is warmer then and, as I surmised, so is the ground.

It turned out I was right. By delaying the planting, I got more and better tomatoes. I don’t know if this is scientific fact, but it worked for me.

We abandoned the tomato garden about 10 years ago to put in a memorial garden for our dear Golden Retriever, Andie, when she died. And then we devoted it again to one of our three children, our son, Nicky, who died at age 28 four years ago. Nicky had lived with profound mental and physical challenges all his life. We knew he would pass at a relatively early age. But his death was, nonetheless, hard for us. Flowers and pretty bushes would be a nice way to think of him.

Still, I missed growing those tomatoes.

We abandoned the tomato garden about 10 years ago to put in a memorial garden for our dear Golden Retriever, Andie… And then we devoted it again to one of our three children, our son, Nicky.

We have an abnormally large backyard. When people visit us for the first time, they see our semi-detached house and then, when they go into the yard, their eyes widen. I can easily imagine what they are thinking: “You’d never think that your house would have a yard the size of a small farm.”

It’s a matter of geography. Our house – and about 20 on our street in mid-town Toronto – backs onto a part of the massive Don Valley. Our yard is the biggest of all. Actually, it’s more long than wide, stretching into a forest that stops at a steep hill. Down below is a park and, eventually, the Don Valley Parkway.

In the summer, when the trees are fat with leaves, you feel as if you are in the country. After a while you don’t notice the faint buzz from vehicles travelling on the Parkway. Deer amble up occasionally from the ravine and we have, of course, more than our fair share of raccoons, squirrels, groundhogs, a huge variety of birds, squirrels and the odd fox. There’s also been a sighting of a coyote recently.

So, we certainly have the room for gardens. My wife, Franny, loves tending to flowers and bushes. My love was for growing vegetables and, specifically, tomatoes. I had inherited this hobby from my dad, Jack. He was a second-generation Sicilian, so vegetable growing was in his blood. I have clear memories of how he would fuss over his tomatoes all summer, trimming the plants as they grew and spraying them with some kind of chemical concoction to ward off insects (hey, it was the ‘60s, before all this became illegal).

My love was for growing vegetables and, specifically, tomatoes. I had inherited this hobby from my dad, Jack.

The tangible benefit, to my dad and me, was, of course, the tomatoes themselves. To me, the tomatoes you pick off your own vine in early September are one of the great culinary treats. Once you’ve had them, the tomatoes grown in greenhouses that are available in the winter don’t even register when it comes to taste. The flavour of a homegrown, late summer tomato explodes when you bite into it.

But, let’s be honest, you really don’t have to grow them yourself. I could just as easily buy homegrown southern Ontario tomatoes in late summer at the supermarket or from a farm.

And that’s what led me to plant my tomatoes on the May 24 weekend. I missed growing the tomatoes more than I missed the taste of them. Tomatoes don’t need a lot of tending, but home farmers like to fuss over them as we do babies and puppies. They actually take on something much like human life as they grow through the summer. And with that growth, we come to have a love and concern for them.

Ironically, it was death that brought back my desire to grow tomatoes. When Andie died, I experienced, for the first time, the pain that comes from the passing of someone close to you. A couple of years after Andie, my dad died at age 86. Then Nicky. Then two good friends, Harold and Jim, who were in their early 50s.

Ironically, it was death that brought back my desire to grow tomatoes.

All this death saddened me but the more painful part was the confusion it created. I couldn’t get their deaths off my mind. Each death made me think of who would come next. And then I became obsessed with when my own death would happen. I was only 59 and in good health, but I couldn’t stop thinking about death.

It all began to dull me. Other people’s problems began to feel minimal. And my passions – for my work as a writer, for my hobbies of playing music and running – became boring. For a year, I spent a lot of time staring into space. I wasn’t really living – just existing.

A couple of years ago, at the gentle encouragement of my wife and a colleague, I got some help. A wonderful psychologist guided me through my grief. And when I started feeling better, I began to be drawn back to the things I loved: baseball, running, cooking, drumming. And one morning in late winter earlier this year, just as nature began to give us a hint that the ice and snow were on their last legs, I remembered the joy of growing those tomatoes.

I remembered how much fun it was to get a good mix of new soil and manure each spring. I remembered the joy in planting the tomatoes and then coming home from work each evening, walking out to the yard and seeing how they had grown. The little yellow flowers would show up in the heat of July. The plants would grow taller and bushier and then those flowers would turn into tiny bulbs. And then the tomatoes would come along.

All this death saddened me but the more painful part was the confusion it created.

I remembered worrying about them. Did I use the right manure? Is it hot enough? Would the raccoons eat them? Would some bug decimate them? Would they get big enough?

And I remembered that being a good kind of worrying. As much as I would be worried about serious things – the health of those close to me, work matters and the larger issues of the world – being worried about my tomatoes was, oddly, comforting.

So, on that late winter day, I decided to start a new garden. Franny mapped out a good spot for it, on the sunny side of a new shed in our yard. When the ground thawed, I took a day off and began digging. That was hard work. Franny joined me in the evenings and on the weekend. We would be covered in mud. Then we bought multiple bags of soil and manure, mixing them in the garden. Franny read that broken egg shells would improve the fertility of the soil. We started saving up egg shells and sprinkling them in the soil.

On that Thursday evening leading into Victoria Day, we went over to a local garden centre to get the tomatoes. Our kids, Glenna and Sam, live on their own now in downtown Toronto. But Sam, who works at a veterinary clinic nearby, comes over every Thursday night for dinner and a sleepover. He asked if we should plant them. Franny said, “Yeah, go for it.” I, however, was concerned it was still too cool.

But, man, I was so excited! I really wanted to get going. So, I checked the weather online. Except for a day of rain on the Saturday of the holiday weekend, it was supposed to be sunny and warm.

“OK, let’s do it,” I declared. And the three of us set about planting the tomatoes.

I was feeling happy they were in the ground and eager for the coming months. Then I turned the TV on and a gardening expert was offering advice. “Don’t plant tomatoes just yet,” he said. “The ground is still too cool.”

“Damn,” I thought. I seriously considered pulling up the tomato plants and storing them somewhere warm. I consulted with Franny. “Oh no, just leave them. They’ll be fine.”

Then I thought back to my year of feeling bad. One of the worst feelings I had that year was that I had lost my once vibrant desire to experiment and try new things. It was a horrible feeling to be afraid to step out.

But a big part of feeling better now is feeling more courageous. I thought of my deceased friends – Andie, my Dad, Nicky, Harold and Jim – “up there” watching me and saying, “Give it a try. Toss caution to the wind. See what happens.”

A big part of feeling better now is feeling more courageous.

So, that’s what I’m doing. I’m worrying about my tomatoes, but it’s a nice worry. There are people worried about where they will get their next meal, or about bombs being dropped on their neighbourhood. We will worry about getting Lyme Disease from a tick, whether our companies will terminate our jobs, what a government could do to cut out a needed service. That’s real worry. The fate of my tomatoes is a kind of worry I welcome.

Besides, we live now in a world where we can control too much. Want a movie? Download it. Groceries? Order online and they will be delivered. A romantic partner? Someone to fix your lawn mower? There are apps for all that.

But there’s no digital device that can assure me of a juicy, fat tomato in September. It’s mostly up to nature.

So, let the worrying begin. This will be fun.


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