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Gardening: a sustainable passion

Stuart Robertson has never supported the use of chemical fertilizers photo:Kristine Berey

April, 2009

Those of us who garden – or dream of gardening – would never miss out on the perennial learning experience a Stuart Robertson column offers. Montreal’s premier gardener, Robertson has been dispensing sage advice and inspiration on CBC Radio, in The Gazette and through speaking engagements for over 27 years.

“Every CBC station has a person like me, all beloved by their audience, getting lots of calls,” he says, understated and matter-of-fact, crediting the popularity of gardening rather than his own personality.

According to Statistics Canada, in the last three decades, floriculture and other nursery products have grown from being a $44-million to a $1.8-billion industry in Canada, in part because of the supply and demand created by the growing numbers of seniors who love to garden.

Robertson remembers when horticultural societies were mostly in Montreal West and NDG, with very few in the French community. “Gardening in Montreal was very much a British, Irish and Scottish activity. People from the U.K. brought their gardening habits with them. They were far more conscious of growing food during the war and made much more of it.” Italian immigrants brought different gardening traditions to Montreal, Robertson said, while the Botanical Garden encouraged people to “garden for themselves.”

The city’s gardening scene is very different now. “The past 20 to 25 years there has been a huge explosion of people in the horticultural industry, with key designers making their names” Robertson says. Cloning and other techniques have made access possible to plants we could never grow or afford to buy before, such as orchids. “I’m pleased to see that Quebec is such a hotbed of experimentation.”

Because, like gardeners, all garden situations are unique, Robertson has never run out of ideas. In the first two of a series of books that he hopes will stretch across the reader’s shelf, Robertson has harvested the infinite variants of the horticultural dilemmas he has solved through the years. “There’s no such thing as a ‘silly question,’ ”he writes in his first book, Stuart Robertson’s Tips on Organic Gardening. “If you want to ask, it’s obviously important to you to get the answer. I still have lots of questions of my own and the best way to learn the answers is to ask someone about them, or look them up in a book… Asking questions seems to be the hallmark of being a gardener.”

He didn’t set out to write the definitive book on gardening, he says. “This is just a collection of answers to questions. They’re ideas of ways of doing things that I’ve found to work, to be fairly easy to manage and that involve as little work as possible.” He credits his readers with many of the ideas he writes about. In his recently published second book, Stuart Robertson’s Tips on container gardening, he thanks all the “fine people” who place quaint, quirky or surprising containers in front of their homes, providing him with “a deluge of ideas.”

Robertson says he has been gardening all his life. His earlier gardening memories are of sharing sunny outdoor moments with William Augustus Robertson, his paternal grandfather. “I spent time with him and must have picked up more than I realized,” Robertson says. “He had a country cottage with a huge vegetable and ornamental garden. He grew everything he could. I credit him with opening my eyes to what could be done.”

Although Robertson presents many options and explains the pros and cons of each alternative solution he describes, he has been unwavering in his organic approach to gardening. He first came into contact with the concept through meeting Helen Nearing, whose books on “The Good Life,” co-authored by her husband Scott, advanced harmless methods of growing food in the mid-’60s when the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides were coming into vogue. Around that time, Robertson read an early copy of the Rodale Book of Organic Gardening. “It seemed to make sense,” Robertson recalls. “At the time I was being bombarded by chemical companies [wanting to promote their products] and [the products] smelled so bad.” He decided that the chemical option was not one he would recommend. “In the ’70s I realized I’ve got to take a stand on it. It’s a shame to use chemical fertilizers and products in the garden which are not encouraging life.”

For Robertson, good soil – “an incredible soup of life”– is the basis of gardening.

People garden for many reasons, Robertson says, wanting to decorate their space with living things or just to relax. “Some people treat gardening as a chore, some people treat it as pure pleasure. There is a definite connection between people and the earth.

If they’re open to it, that’s wonderful.

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