The Green Gardens of Paradise: An interview with Sandra Birdsell

Last summer, Rhubarb publisher Victor Enns asked award-winning author Sandra Birdsell about the rewards and challenges of gardening.

What’s the first garden you remember?

My earliest garden was my grandparents’ garden—the Schroeder grandparents in Morris. I lived with them at an early age, with my mother and about five of her children, while my father served away in the army.

One of their garden plots was on a hill facing the river and the town park below and I spent a lot of time there, with my grandfather especially. I recall his rows and rows of gladioli, which figure strongly in one of my first stories, “Flowers for Weddings and Funerals.”

Gardens were sacred places. At least that’s what I gained from my grandfather, from the slow and quiet way he moved, his reflectiveness, and the fact that he barely spoke English and had to make his words count.

There was a dill patch, the seeds of which my grandparents had brought with them from their garden in Chortiza, to me known then simply as “Russia.” There were also melon seeds, which hardly produced anything worthwhile in Manitoba because of the shorter growing season. This fact saddened my grandfather.

I thought a lot about those seeds, how they had come from a different soil, of the inherent memories they carried with them, the seed within the seed, memory going back to the Garden of Eden, perhaps.

Did you have chores or specific work to do in the family garden? Your parents? Siblings?

Yes, I had specific chores in the garden. My mother designated many household chores according to what she perceived to be a child’s interest or talent. I got the garden, thank goodness. I spaded the garden in spring and again in fall, hoed weeds, and sometimes got to plant a row or two, but planting was definitely something my parents did together at the end of the day. Of course I had a hand in the harvest, pea- and bean-picking, digging the potatoes, etc. The reward, as it were, for hoeing and spading.

What’s your favourite growing-up garden memory? Was there anything about gardening you really hated?

My favourite garden memory was seeing the garden green, bit by bit. Seeds were amazingly magical, the life contained within their hard shells. Their power to push through the earth so vigorously.

I liked weeding with my grandfather. He once pointed out that some weeds closely resembled the vegetables they grew among and told me the story of the tares, cautioning me to be careful about who I chose for friends.

Do you remember the first time you heard about the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve being expelled?

I can’t remember the actual first time, but I heard the story of the Garden of Eden as a child, at home and at Sunday School. My mother would tell it with sadness. If only, that kind of thing. The garden story and the flood story, from an early age made me both fearful and angry. I thought God was unloving and rather vindictive.

Of course later I understood the story behind the story, the need for humans to know and to truly come into being, making it necessary to be expelled from paradise in order to regain paradise.

I couldn’t quite figure out the purpose of paradise, though. I thought it was likely rather boring, as heaven was likely boring. But it was explained to me that in paradise we had been different beings (and wouldn’t mind being bored) as we would also be transformed to different beings in heaven.

I think what bothered me the most about Adam and Eve being expelled was the result that we needed to kill animals for food.

When did you start making your own gardens?

I planted my first garden during the flood of 1950 when I was sent to Winnipeg to live with city cousins. While I was there their family went away on an extended trip and my grandparents cared for me. I was likely quite lonely apart from my many siblings and to entertain myself I planted a garden in their driveway, the only area that wasn’t grass.

Where the seeds came from, I’m not sure. Although my stay wasn’t long enough to see the garden bloom, when my cousins returned there was a lush growth of cucumbers and pumpkins in the driveway and for the remainder of summer they parked on the street. The story was told and retold with amusement and each time I felt pleased with myself. Later as an adult, I planted a garden whenever and wherever possible, but none were ever as large or as successful as my grandparents’ gardens.

What did you plant when you started gardening?

I was always attempting to recreate my grandfather’s yard, to beautify my space by creating fish ponds and rock gardens, with dismal results. So I wanted beauty but was practical, too, and planted the usual vegetables, although never potatoes since I disliked picking the bugs from them.

My early gardens failed to thrive. More than likely because I moved too often, from rental to rental. But also because I was impatient and unwilling to take the time to prepare the soil properly. I planted too early. I sometimes disturbed the seeds in a fit of impatience to see if they were sprouting or not. My first gardens never came close to looking like any of the gardens in gardening magazines and I resented that. I thought I’d been cheated, or fretted that I hadn’t inherited my mother’s green thumb. But still, I kept trying.

Have your gardens changed over time?

Yes, my gardens changed as I changed. I accepted it would take years for a perennial garden to mature and that a successful vegetable garden required more careful preparation and planning. It wasn’t until I owned my garden space that I was willing to make that investment and it paid off.

I learned to garden in raised beds in my first real home on Westminster Avenue in Winnipeg. It was a fun garden, with Russian sunflowers towering over the garage. In Regina, I learned to garden in deep shade and in pots, which took a bit of experimenting. The people I bought bedding plants from came to know me well, nudging one another to rush over and assist me. Over the years I spent a small fortune there.

Does gardening affect your writing process?

Perhaps it’s the other way around: my writing has affected my gardening. As I learned that writing required enduring patience, solitude, vision, resilience in the face of disappointments, and sometimes heartbreak, my approach to gardening changed.

You have a garden behind your house in Regina. What is it about keeping a garden now that is important to you?

I don’t garden as much space now because of arthritis and the vegetable patch is gone. But what’s important to me now is what has always been important. To be surrounded by greenery, to create a quiet, peaceful environment with lots of vine covering and variegated leafy plants, different colours and textures of ground cover that look like tapestry, and a jug fountain where the birds come to drink and bathe.

I have several peony plants that came from a centuries-old Polish garden, dill from seeds a great aunt brought from Russia, irises from my mother’s long-ago garden. And while I haven’t attempted gladioli, I have kept to my grandfather’s love of delphiniums. In one corner of my yard there’s a vine arbour and more grape vines grow across the face of my lovely cedar dacha gazebo. Friends sometimes say I have created a little paradise here on the busy corner of Rae Street.

Victor Enns is a writer and editor living in Winnipeg. His collection, Afghanistan Confessions, was published by Hagios Press in 2014.