A Reader Profile: In the Garden with Helen Blackburn
Photos by Jon Tamlin Edited by Rina Barone
Having a bookstore in a small town you're bound to meet a lot of people from all walks of life. You talk books, you swap stories, and you learn a few things along the way. And as the years go on you have the pleasure to make personal connections and really get to know the "regulars". Some pull up a stool, others bring you tea, but all share their stories. And now we'd like to share some of these stories with you. This is the first profile in a new series.
We start with Helen Blackburn, historian, storyteller, teacher, writer, dedicated volunteer, avid reader, and master gardener. Helen is an engaged community citizen. She sits on numerous arts and culture boards, and helped found My Friend's House in Collingwood, a shelter for abused women and children. Born in Creemore, Helen's ancestors settled the town and Websterville, a place she has called home most of her life. She lives next to her childhood home on about a 5-acre lot, that was once an old railway route, on the Mad River, spending her days "doing what needs to be done" and finding joy in tending to a 15-bed vegetable and flower garden.
"When I plant seeds I hover over them and the little plants like an anxious mother. I get a lot of pleasure watching them grow."
How many years have you kept a garden?
69, although there might have been a couple of years when I didn't have a garden. In 1958 three friends and I spent July and August in Europe.
Where did your love of gardening come from?
My mother had a large garden as did just about everyone else in this area. I don't remember seeing vegetables for sale in stores. I remember how I grew to love the fresh vegetables as they became ready in the summer. My favourites were peas and tomatoes. Every night in tomato season I went to bed with thick tomato sandwiches. So I think the love of fresh vegetables was where it started.
My grandmother had a normal vegetable garden but beautiful flower gardens. Grandma was half a mile away and in summer my sister and cousins spent a lot of time running through the flowers. My cousin and niece and I have flowers in our gardens that came from hers. There is a beautiful yellow rose called Harrison's Yellow that we all love.
How old were you when you planted your first garden?
My first garden was a 4-H garden. I'm pretty sure I knew I loved gardening when I took the 4-H garden clubs, 3 of them. We were instructed in good gardening practices and learned about different plants. I was 14 or 15. We were given the seeds and the prescribed layout. It included all the usuals, like carrots and beans and radishes and beets, and usually we tried something different like Chinese Cabbage. The different 4-H Homemaker clubs were very local and didn't have many members at a time. Sometimes 5 or 6 or 7. My mother was often the leader. The clubs were sponsored by the Women's Institute. My sister belonged. She died in 2012.
How has your garden evolved over the years?
Mainly what I planted depended on our needs. When I started selling organic vegetables in 1990 I planted what my customers would like. I used to use a tiller and work the garden soil up but recently I have moved into raised beds. I have become much more aware of soil health.
When I lived in Nottawa I had a garden there, a little bit of everything so we could just run out and get what we wanted. While I was selling I estimate I had 5 times what I have now. I had good rototillers and tilled the whole garden. Then one year I started getting compost from the dump and didn't want to be putting it on paths so started building raised beds. I found that I had better crops using them so could cut back on the number. I have planted berries and currants and apple trees. The pears and plums have died. I have changed what I grow whenever I grew tired of some things.
"For years I picked up bags of leaves from Creemore streets and used them to work into the soil or use as mulch. One very rainy day I was on Elizabeth street throwing bags of leaves into the back of my little pick up truck.
I remember cars going slowly by and the people staring out as if to say, What fool is that? But when they realized it was me they seemed to think, Well, that is Helen. I'm not surprised. She's always doing crazy things."
What is a typical gardening season for you?
I have been in the habit of ordering seeds the last week of February but this year so many people were suddenly getting the gardening urge that the seed companies were overwhelmed and the order was late coming. Next year I will order earlier. I plant the first seeds in the house at my big south window in little pots. As they grow I put them in larger pots but can't have too many or they won't get light. Depending on the weather I then get them out to the greenhouse. I have a small heater there that I just use if frost is expected.
I start planting tomatoes, lettuce and flowering annuals the first week in April, then at intervals the cabbage and broccoli and other flowers and finally about the end of April I plant some cucumbers and squash. When the weather starts warming up, I plant peas in April, two or more varieties so I always have a few coming.When I plant other things depends mainly on the weather. Some things do well if it is still cool but others like beans need warm soil. But it was so hot in the spring that carrots, zinnias, other flowers and some salad greens didn't germinate.
I keep planting seeds all summer to keep fresh stuff coming along. For example I plant 6 beans and when they come up I plant 6 more so I always have some but not too many at a time. I keep harvesting as things are ready. If there are bare patches I plant cover crops such as buckwheat and crimson clover. I leave most plants in the ground over winter as I have been learning that soil health depends on plants in the soil. I do pull out the tomatoes. All of this happens bit by bit. Finally the weather turns nasty and I cheerfully quit gardening for another season sometime in late Oct.
How much time do you spend in your garden?
I used to work 6 hours a day at least 4 times a week but not now. As I grow older I find I don't have the stamina to do any more than 2 hours at a time. I just do what needs doing and it might be just nothing.
What was your worst gardening season?
I can't name just one. Perhaps about 28 years ago a volcano in the West somewhere erupted and the dust made the skies cloudy most of the summer. Things didn't grow well and I remember the pea pods rotting on the vine. One spring it rained and rained in May and the long May weekend it really poured. The river flooded and was starting to run over the freshly tilled and planted garden. I was almost in tears thinking there would be no garden that summer. But on the Tuesday the sun came out and it was warm. I went around poking the pea seeds into the ground . They had been floating on the water. Everything flourished and it was a grand garden that year. There have been years when the flea beetles struck on a weekend and ruined a lot of things and years when the potato bugs seemed to be going through a life cycle between the morning and late afternoon.
Even this year for the first time I had no apples on 10 trees. But we always have enough to eat
"Raccoons. Their favourite vegetable is corn. I fought them off for 40 years before I gave up. I used electric fencing and fencing inside the electric fence and various smelly things and hot pepper on the corn silk. Life is better without corn.
Raccoons also like strawberries. I tried row cover but the raccoons ripped the row cover to shreds and ate the berries. Life is better without strawberries."
As a master gardener, what advice would you give novice gardeners?
Most of all persevere, don't give up. Start fairly small. If the crops are a disaster, if the bugs and slugs eat their full, if you can't see anything for weeds, that is OK. Those things happen to all of us. Try not to be a perfectionist. The problems may just be because of the weather that year or maybe you had unexpected emergencies and didn't have time. Come next winter start making gardening plans for the spring.
What lessons have you learned from having a garden?
Filling your family up with fresh vegetables and fruit makes them healthy. The garden can be a great tension reliever, especially if you aren't a perfectionist. After a day as a teacher I would come home and tour the garden to see what was happening before I threw myself into getting supper ready and looking after the evening's work.
This past year has been difficult with the pandemic. How has the garden helped you?
I have tried to keep myself isolated as much as possible and the garden has kept me busy and takes my mind off the problems elsewhere. Looking at the growing plants and flowers, the birds, and butterflies that are attracted to the garden give me a source of contentment. I look forward to meals with the newest of the fresh vegetables. Also, I have a feeling of food security. I may not get out to shop or some things may not be available but I know I will have good things to eat.
How have you seen the area change over the years?
It has changed but I don't judge the change better or worse. When I was a girl this was farm country. All along the roads were 100 acre farms and farm families. While they didn't get rich they had mostly a comfortable living. Now the farms have been sold, mainly because income from farms has fallen greatly and very few farmers could make a living on the hills.
When I was young there were organizations that kept Creemore a lively place. A person could be out every night of the week if so choosing. We have different groups now but they provide lots of interesting things to do and many social occasions. (That is, when we are not having a pandemic.)
We have all the modern ways of connecting with others. But the same old way of caring for others still exists. The Big Heart and neighbourliness are still very much alive.
Besides gardening, you have a lot of interests. What are you passionate about?
I have had more interests than I can list here, from photography to quilting to travel in foreign countries. Over my lifetime I have collected local history and still have an interest in it. I have files and files, and old photos. I write monthly in the Echo and have written four local history books. I knit a lot, write letters to pen pals, and care a whole lot about activities locally.
You're an avid reader. How many books do you read in a year?
I have no idea, maybe 150 or 200. Kind of depends how thick the books are.
What are you currently reading?
A biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2, 1932-1938. And Yale Needs Women (How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant by Anne Gardiner Perkins)
Helen has written four local history books, and continues to write a monthly column for the Creemore Echo.