OUR VIEW YOUR VIEW

What this country needs is a good 10-cent packet of purple pod beans

JON RUDDY August 1 1970
OUR VIEW YOUR VIEW

What this country needs is a good 10-cent packet of purple pod beans

JON RUDDY August 1 1970

What this country needs is a good 10-cent packet of purple pod beans

JON RUDDY

ONE BRIGHT night in May, walking along a derelict CNR track through the Forest Hill district of Toronto, I felt quite sure that I would never have a house. There are some big ones in there, but what I was looking at were their gardens, shadowy behind a ragged screen of lilac and Chinese elm, and what provoked my self-pity was the thought that I really had nowhere to plant my vegetables. Why had I sent away for them, anyway (the round red radish seeds and the carrot seeds as fine as dust motes), writing the beautiful names, French Breakfast, Hybrid Coral Cross, fondly on the order form and enclosing my cheque payable to Dominion Seed House, Georgetown, Ont., like a real gardener? The answer goes back a long way.

At 31 I can remember a time when almost every small-city boy lived in a house with a yard. My generation, or most of it, recalls vegetable gardens presided over by fathers home from the War, and the taste of corn so fresh that the water was boiling before the cobs were picked, and beds of peonies, zinnias, gladioli.

But in downtown Toronto you can’t buy a home unless you make $12,000

a year, and if you happen to be paying alimony you can’t do it on $15,000. Make that $18,000. Oh, make it $20,000. My wife and I and our son live in a duplex, and I’ve built window boxes. We also have a cottage in Haliburton, and I have a garden there that I’ve established for about $10 per marginal sprout; for example, I pay $1 a bushel for topsoil in Toronto to carry 150 miles to the lake, a device that my friends find amusing. It is amusing, and it’s pathetic, amusing and pathetic to cook steaks on a charcoal hibachi on a high-rise balcony and to grow Tiny Tim tomatoes in pots on a window sill in a country that comprises 3,851,809 square miles. But a lot of us children of the Thirties and Forties are doing these things. In Toronto, which is our prototype city, there are plenty of kids who have

never tasted a fresh melon. My own wife thought, until proven otherwise, that tomatoes grew in the ground like some kind of beet.

So I wouldn’t be without my vegetable seeds, even the ones that stay in their little envelopes on a shelf by my bed to remind me of where I came from and of where I want to go. The catalogue is there, too, my favorite bedtime reading; the land of my dreams grows Mammoth Red Rock cabbages, Royalty purple pod snap beans or, on a bad night, Serpent cucumbers, flesh-eating Darlingtonia and the Venus Fly Trap.

The Dominion Seed House catalogue is a masterpiece of escapism; its publishers are dream merchants in a way that Hollywood producers once were and are no more. I went to Georgetown to meet the man who has been putting it together since 1928. He is Phares Vannatter, a 58year-old former electrician with an air of creative fulfillment about him. Vannatter confirmed that an increasing percentage of the catalogue’s quartermillion circulation was going into the cities. What his urban customers did with all the seeds they ordered he didn’t know. But he pulled out a letter from a customer in Pointe Claire, P.Q., that summed it up for me: “I love your catalogue and wish I had the ground to plant more seeds.”

Before I left Georgetown I got to talking with a few men working in Dominion’s 65 acres. One of them told me that he didn’t want to look at fresh vegetables at the end of the day and that his wife opened a can of peas to go with his steak. I felt at that moment that I shared some values with most Canadians, even speed freaks and people who kicked their dogs, but not with him. I wanted to tell him that in the big cities we had gone the canned-peas route and that it was leading inexorably toward canned air. But that’s an absurd projection to make when you’re standing in a field of flowers talking to a man with a hoe who wants to move to Toronto as badly as you want to leave it.

What’s really happening, of course, is that Toronto is moving to Georgetown. From where I stood I could see a Dairy Queen and a Kentucky Fried Chicken store, and Phares Vannatter was saying that the town now completely surrounded the Dominion acreage. He said it complacently and perhaps proudly. Even in the seed business they still believe in progress as an unequivocal good. □