A garden to be

We've lived in a few different houses in the past five years, six of them to be exact, and one of the things I've enjoyed doing on the blog is giving "house tours", mostly because I love looking at other people's homes, online and in person.

I like to see how other people live, how they organize stuff, how they decorate, etc.

I want to share our new apartment as part of these house tour posts because, can I tell you a little secret?, I LOVE our apartment. Love, love, love.

Each week it becomes more an expression of us; art and photographs go on the walls, the arrangement of food and tools in the kitchen cupboards gets refined (I'm still asked all the time "where's the..."), the routines of how we move and use the space get tweaked.

There are many things I love about this honey wood floor, black cabinetry, white walled house. But what I love most is the feeling that it's mine for a few years. This is different than every other home we've lived in for the past four years.

Knowing this is where I'll be in a year, two years, three years... is like drifting off to sleep, on a cold winter's night, the duvet pulled up tight under my chin. Comfort I tell you, pure comfort; settling into space and community, settling into home.

I'm happy here. Happy.

And so I'd like to start the house tours because I'm simply delighted to share our home with you.

We're going to start outside, in the backyard specifically. Which is ironic because, unlike the rest of our living space, the yard is un-done. It is not even in process, it is all before and no after. And I thought this would be fun, to share what it looks like now and then next summer and the next summer and the next summer (feel I should add a "God willing" at this point). I can show the yard in process, on the way to after but always becoming, the way life is.

First, some Montreal apartment facts. We live in a three-storey, four-plex apartment building. Two or three storey apartment buildings are common, both in our neighborhood and in other older parts of the city. Many of these buildings, the ones closer to downtown especially, were grand homes built in the 19th century. The buildings in my Rosemont neighborhood are circa post-WWII housing boom.

Buildings are owned by landlords (who may or may not live in the building), or co-operatives (something I'm not really familiar with). Buildings sit smack dab against neighboring buildings (sometimes with alleys or driveways between) but the "building" remains a discrete unit of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, (more?) apartments.

Our three-storey building has four apartments. Two above us, side by side, and one below us. Ours is the main floor apartment and usually the main floor apartment gets the backyard, if there is one.

Our building has a yard, and as the main floor tenants it's both our responsibility to maintain it and our privilege to use it.

I get to be a gardener again.

Years ago, when I was a newbie organic gardener I dreamt I might become an urban homesteader, maxing out our Maine city lot with food producing crops. A combination of factors, including my husband's lack of interest to be significantly involved in any such enterprise and the wide availability of local foods at farms, markets and even grocery stores, convinced me that urban homesteader was not in the cards for me.

However, with each growing season I honed my gardener craft and by the time I left that garden four years ago I knew the kind of gardener I am.

I garden for beauty.

Gardening's primary function in my life is to contribute to my spiritual, emotional, and creative wellbeing; and also my physical wellbeing in terms of exercise and spending time outdoors. It's not a means of growing a lot of food.

apartment building in our neighborhood, not ours

I was very proud of the gardens I created around our home in Maine. We grew a few green edibles in a raised bed and some tomatoes that, year after year, were infected with a blight that I couldn't eradicate from our small space yard. But most of the garden space was dedicated to flowers. Flowers planted by design so we'd have blooming beauties through the entire growing season, flowers planted to provide nourishment to bees and butterflies, flowers planted for their medicinal and healing properties, flowers to make me happy.

All of this garden craft has been put on hold for the past four years. I can't say I really missed it, there were too many other things in my life to fill that space. I lived surrounded by a beautiful natural environment. I didn't feel a strong need to plant more beauty and spend the time doing so, and logistically it just didn't make sense since we moved, on average, every nine months. It was not a season for gardening.

When we moved to Montreal a backyard was on the want list. Technically not a need, but high enough on our wants to border on need. We found an apartment with the interior space we needed (3 bedrooms), in an area we liked, with not only a yard/garden space but our own driveway, a huge bonus in a city of complicated and competitive street parking.

I have a yard, two actually counting the front yard which is mine to garden also, and we intend to stay put for a few years. It's time to start gardening again.

Not this summer. This summer I had one gardening goal: to grow colorful pots of annuals on our balcony.

Next summer I will start transforming this space into something beautiful. Right now, not so beautiful, but full of potential.

Some people like the idea, or reality, of rambling acres, mown lawns, large gardens and an outdoor space with room to grow. We're city dwellers and our teenaged kids have a whole city to explore, they don't need a big backyard. And I'm pretty much on my own when it comes to any yard work beyond mowing, which Damien has always done.

I approach gardening like I do managing my home. I like tidy spaces and simplicity.

This is the perfect yard for my needs.

My vision for the yard is something like this: an outdoor eating area on the concrete patio (I'm thinking twinkly lights strung along the back wall of the house need to be part of that plan); perennial beds along the "green" fence; and a vegetable/sunflower/annuals/herb garden behind the garage.

Damien and I are currently debating replacing the pool. There used to be a pool but it was old and damaged and so it was removed from the property. The space would work well as a pool but we are not big "maintainers" and signing ourselves up for regular maintenance is not a decision we make lightly. This summer we've taken advantage of the free public outdoor swimming pools. (Cameras are not allowed otherwise I'd love to share photos since pool swimming has been a big part of our summer.)

So we'll see about the pool.

The backyard is a southern exposure and because there are no large trees it gets full sun all day. It's meant for a garden.

I feel our yard space, front and back, are just the right size for how we want to spend our time at this stage of family life; enough space for me to grow lots of beauty, but not too much space that we have to spend a lot of time maintaining. Both of us would rather do other things. And the best part is that in the city there are no pesky biting insects. No mosquitoes, no ticks, no black flies.

It's not the most beautiful backyard ever, I've seen some amazing yards, seriously swoon, in Montreal. But if it was already done I wouldn't have the privilege to create that beauty.

What I don't like about the yard is that the soil is full of clay and very compacted (and there are a lot of rocks around the old pool area). But I've worked with clay before in Maine and though I'll never have the loam of the prairies in my Montreal backyard I know I can build a good soil back there with basic composting and soil amendment principles.

One thing I used to do when gardening was to keep a garden journal, or rather, pages of looseleaf notes, flower tags, calendars with planting dates, and garden sketches filed in a garden section of my homemaking binder.

The garden section of that binder has long since disappeared but I do look forward to resurrecting it next year. I had been thinking about this, anticipating how I would start planning the garden next February, when Angi Schneider contacted me last week to tell me about her Gardening Notebook garden planner and record keeper.

She's doing a special promotion right now of the Garden Notebook, perfect timing for making records about this year's harvest, records you will probably want to revisit as you make plans for next year's garden.

Gardening Notebook is not an extensive "how-to" garden manual but it does have helpful information for growing, harvesting, storing and common pests and problems for the common vegetables, fruits and herbs. Angi lives in Texas and the book has a Texas 'flavor' with some Texas resources listed but includes a lot of other resources also for gardening across North America.

One of the most helpful features of the e-book is the planting guide which lays out for you when you can plant your garden vegetables based on the date of the last frost in your hardiness zone. With our move from the peninsula to Montreal I've gone from zone 3 to zone 5. Yee-haw!

The Gardening Notebook is on sale for $5 till August 31st.

I'm looking forward to getting my garden started and once again being an urban gardener.

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  • karen

    karen on Aug. 15, 2015, midnight

    It's a gorgeous space!!  Can't wait to see the rest!  Oh, to live in Montreal is so so Awesome!!!!  I'm also more of a urban homesteader type,  requiring nature as well as a good portion of cultural enrichment and diversity that's only to be found in city living. And Montreal -- clean city living!! It's truly the best of both worlds!  Enjoy, Tougas family! ♥


  • Susan

    Susan on Aug. 15, 2015, 12:50 p.m.

    Looking forward to seeing your garden next summer. I too enjoy having a small in town back yard. Big enough to enjoy gardening  but small enough not to be tided down.


  • Lisa Zahn

    Lisa Zahn on Aug. 16, 2015, 6:45 p.m.

    I love house and garden tours for all the same reasons you do, and I can't wait to see more of yours. Thanks for sharing this. It's fun to dream and envision right along with you.


  • Marianna

    Marianna on Aug. 19, 2015, 3:51 a.m.

    i just read through the last five or six posts all at once, and this last one makes me happy because you sound happy!! Pain is real, and often very necessary for our growth, but coming out the other side is a blessing  


    i also love house tours, and can hardly wait to see more of yours!

    Finally, as a former pool owner....don't do it!! We too moved this summer from a house with a pool to one without and not having the maintainace headache (not to mention the expense) of a pool is wonderful!! 




  • Alaina

    Alaina on Aug. 23, 2015, 1:32 p.m.

    I love this post and seeing the yard "before".  We are moving locally soon to a house with a yard and I am also looking forward to gardening again, too.  So I am going through something similar soon.  The yard has no gardens except for one very small weedy bed so I will be very busy over the next years setting up something.  However in this stage of my life with small children it has to be manageable.  I like how you put it...gardening for beauty.  I really like your apartment and I can't wait to see how you change the yard. I am looking forward to getting some ideas for my own space.  However I am jealous of zone 5!!!  I'm zone 3. :)


  • Spalva

    Spalva on Aug. 28, 2015, 2:09 p.m.

    I feel moved to comment on the begging.  I moved last year to a big city on the border with eastern Europe and was suddenly confronted with more begging than I had been in the East itself.  I also questioned God about my responsibility.  Confronted several times daily, I knew that I could not sustain a practice of giving to everyone (although, writing this out, I realise I could give a bit to everyone and not suffer from it).  I decided to place it in God's hand and wait for feelings of "being moved" to give.  Surely I would know when someone was truly hungry/needy.

    One day I walked over the bridge I had walked over hundreds of time and saw a memorial for the large older man who begged there day in, day out.  I had always averted my eyes as he was filthy and full of sores.  The memorial on the bridge was full of notes and flowers.  Most of the notes adressed this man by his Christian name and spoke of how this man had changed the note writer's life, how he had inspired him/her, and how he/she had enjoyed each conversation with him.  And I had not given one cent to the man nor even really looked at him.

    I realized my "being moved" feelings were my own human projections.  I cannot decide on my own who deserves a penny or two.  I cannot know -- anymore than I can truly know God -- who deserves money and who doesn't.

    The other day I gave 50 euro cents to an old man.  I couldn't know what he would he do with it.  But the answer to my wondering came quickly as I spotted him in line at the bakery. 

    I have no clue what it is to be truly hungry.  And in these days in Europe when people are flooding in from Syria and the Balkans, I must try to give a little something to everyone -- if it's just a smile.  I can't go spend an inordinate amount of money on back-to-school clothes for my teen and then shake my head at a stranger and avert my eyes.  The old Roma lady who moans in front of my grocery store every day helped me the other day when I was trying to tell my daughter to come into the grocery story with me.  She went out of her way to call her from around the corner and was quite proud of herself for helping, smiling widely.  She is human, after all!


    • renee

      renee on Aug. 28, 2015, 4:43 p.m.


      Your comment echoes a recent discussion we had in our church small group (small groups of people meeting through the city, based on geographic proximity, to read the bible together, eat and hang out regularly, serve in their community together, support and encourage each other, pray for each other, etc.) about this very thing.

      Damien and I asked this group of people their perspective on the problem/issue (the problem in Montreal, Canada is nothing like the eastern european refuge crisis, I acknowledge), since we are so new to it, living in the city. 

      I was very convicted through that conversation that I had been treating these people as non-people. Simply ignoring them because I didn't know what else to do. I may not be able to give financially to each request (and I don't) but that doesn't mean I shouldn't respond, to smile, even when I have to say 'no'. I don't have to ignore their presence. They're people. 

      What's hard for me is when I feel entitled to space, my privacy, my "personal bubble". And when people get in this space I don't know what to do with that because I find it so awkward. I feel like saying "leave me alone, you're invading my space", or my time (I don't want to slow down to hear someone's conspiracy theories and/or life history, "can't you see I'm trying to buy my vegetables??" 

      I am very challenged by these situations, spiritually, physically, intellectually. What are my rights here? What are your rights? How do I respond when I feel my "rights" (to privacy, space, my own agenda) have been "violated". I am ashamed by my pettiness and I wrestle, repeatedly, with what it means to love my neighbor as myself.


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