Hands in the Dirt

By Kate Robertson

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Photo by: Steve Mounteer

A significant number of Canadians say gardening is a hobby they are passionate about. Victoria Carleton of Slocan Valley, BC, has taken it one step further. Her hobby has grown into a whopping two-acre portion of their acreage, filled with raised vegetable beds, perennial beds, and a large garden plot for more vegetables and dahlias. There are also blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and a small orchard of pears, apples and plums. Since the garden had grown steadily, when it was fenced a few years ago because the deer were starting to get too much of the harvest, Victoria says, “It was a relief to know the area couldn’t get any bigger!”

Her interest in gardening started back in 1972 in Nass Valley with the “back to the land” movement. “I had been around my parents’ gardens,” Victoria shares, “but I wanted to grow more of my own food and preserve it for winter. I started with basic rows, but switched to raised beds after reading *Square Foot Gardening*… much more efficient and easier to take care of because you can do intensive planting.” She continues, “Now we try to raise as much food for ourselves as we can.”

Victoria estimates she and her husband, Steve Mounteer, grow an impressive 80 per cent of the fruit and vegetables they consume throughout the year, preserved in the root cellar, frozen, canned or dried. With this method of eating, it’s easy to follow a seasonal diet. “We don’t eat lettuce or microgreens unless we have grown them, which, with our greenhouse, we can do from about March to November. Last year, because there was no big freeze in November, was the first time we had greens from the greenhouse on Christmas Day.”

But Victoria’s initial food interest morphed. “As I started to grow food crops, I became more interested in perennials and shrubs,” she explains. “I consider myself a collector wanting to have one of everything. I do not have any formal training, but I read constantly and try to experiment a lot.”

Victoria has been gardening in their present home, close to Winlaw, for 26 years. “We take pride in the fact that everything was built by us from the ground up. We cleared the area, lived in a tent for six months with two babies and moved in when the snow came in November. We worked on the gardens and the house as the years went by, and since both of us worked full-time at our day jobs, found what time was leftover to continue building,” explains Victoria. Over the years, they have added a greenhouse, root cellar, teahouse and sauna, as well as various additions to the house.

The latest addition is a plantroom, where Victoria will be able to grow microgreens and herbs all year long. Previously, they also put an addition onto the house to store food. “We used to keep it in the kids’ bedrooms in boxes, but I couldn’t find anything. Now I walk into a pantry with lots of shelves and easily pick out what I need,” she says.

How much time is involved in maintaining a two-acre garden plot? According to Victoria, now that she is mostly retired (she continues to work a few days a month as an x-ray tech and volunteers on Thursdays at the local food bank), as soon as the snow starts to melt, each day she’s out the door and “playing” in the garden. “I usually work out there for about six hours. When my husband comes home from work around 3:30, we usually go out together for another couple of hours,” she explains. And she’s quick to clarify that’s rain or shine, “unless it’s really pouring or lightening.”

The gardening work is seasonal. “I don’t do anything at all in December and January – that’s my down time. Then, seed catalogues start coming and I start my seeds in February,” she says. Spring and fall are the busiest seasons; spring with planting and weeding and fall with harvesting and cleaning up. But Victoria shares, “I pretty much have figured out how to keep the weeding down: mulch is your friend! It encourages slugs, but I’d way rather hunt slugs than pick weeds.”

Because Victoria is so passionate about gardening, she says she didn’t realize how much work it was until last year when she had to do everything on her own because her husband was working on an addition to their house. Steve usually does the “hard work” like building things, such as the raised beds, banging stakes into the ground, or heavy wheelbarrowing. “He also does the tree pruning,” says Victoria with a smile, “because he wanted the fruit trees.” She continues, “Sometimes, we think we should be cutting down because our kids are no longer at home, but then we think there’s always someone to give food to, and now our oldest son is getting a freezer!”

Victoria admits that although she has always loved gardening, it used to be much more stressful before retiring and especially when her two children were young. “I don’t have to feel guilty now, when a kid has to come out to find me in the garden and say ‘I’m hungry, what’s for dinner?’ And I’m more relaxed if I can’t use what I harvest or I can’t plant my spinach by a certain day. I just think ‘oh well.’”

And Victoria also makes sure to take time to relax and enjoy the fruits of her passion. “I love that the garden takes me to different rooms and I never know where the path will lead. The tea garden and pond are my favourite quiet, out of the way corners,” she confides.

Over the years, Victoria’s gardening efforts have received some well-deserved accolades. Her Nass Valley garden was featured in Harrowsmith in 1985. Then in 2007, Victoria and Steve’s current garden was featured in Gardens West Magazine and, again in 2008, in Katherine Gordon’s book about eight gardens and their gardeners in the Slocan Valley called The Garden That You Are. They also previously participated in the Slocan Valley Garden Tour for about 14 years.

Without a doubt, gardening to such a scale is a lot of work and Victoria jokes, “I don’t recommend it to anyone.” “But,” she pensively continues, “I love my food. And I love having my hands in the dirt. I love to watch things bloom and grow – it’s very addicting. Either you love it, or you don’t.”


august 2016 INSPIRED senior living magazine


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