My father might have revered public personalities like Guy Lafleur and René Lévesque, but my idol made more of an impression getting his hands dirty. I'm talking about Larry Hodgson, commonly called the “Laidback Gardener.” Every day, as part of my job in charge of the My Space for Life Garden program, I read his writing on his webpage. That reading has inspired me to write my own blog articles, and even a fascination on my part for myths and beliefs related to the garden.
This article is a kind of homage, to thank him for sparking so much thinking and inspiration in me.
Dear Larry, it's partly thanks to you that my interest in gardening ever blossomed. While horticulture struck me as too rigorous a discipline, purely academic and too often appearance-oriented, laidback gardening was in line with my values, and it intrigued me.
I was now allowed to practice trial-and-error, to accept both imperfection and simplicity and to act only when it was essential to. The thing is, you ask the right questions and constantly take matters back to the purely practical. For me, you're not simply laidback, but more like clever, astute and thoughtful.
Intervening only when necessary
It's probably the greatest legacy that I'll keep from your philosophy. Your famous 15 pace rule is a good illustration of that way of thinking. In brief, rather than systematically intervening in every irregular aspect of the garden, you advise us to take 15 steps back and observe. If the “problem” isn't noticeable at that distance, then it's likely there's no need to intervene.
When we apply that principle, we save time and energy, and avoid using chemical products like pesticides. That leads us to tolerance, and ultimately to accept imperfection. After all, if we want to garden ecologically, isn't that a way of making more room for biodiversity in our gardens? What stands out for me is that we have to work with nature and not against the conditions it presents us with. Is your garden in the shade, does it have poor soil, or is it located in a fully hardy zone? Adapt what you grow instead of wearing yourself out adapting your garden.
The other big lesson I'll take away is the one about questioning our usual practices in order to act objectively. Our knowledge evolves, and certain traditional ways of doing things have been overtaken by science. The fact that there's often some truth to them or a historical reason for their existence may explain the persistence of many iffy beliefs – but what a joy to remove their mystique with longtime gardeners!
To name just a few, I'm thinking of the myth about watering in the sun burning leaves, whereas in fact it rains every day on many forests without doing any damage… There's also the one about the phases of the Moon significantly influencing plant growth, although weather forecasts would seem a lot more reliable. The same goes for the so-called drainage layer at the bottom of pots, which, as it happens, impedes root growth (not to mention drainage!).
Let's also mention eggshells, which some believe would create a barrier against slugs, even though in reality slugs can safely cross them thanks to their protective mucus. In fact they're more likely to be attracted by those shells!
Finally, I'd like to point out all the nuances you bring to companion planting, highly promising on paper but almost impossible to apply in practice. Without rejecting everything, you talk more about logical companion planting, where the gardener makes plans mostly on the basis of sunlight availability, watering needs and plant height. That approach incidentally inspired me to write a blog text on the concept of companion planning.
Of these lessons, what sticks with me is that sometimes it's constructive to reexamine what we may have been taught was the norm. Without encouraging disobedience, your questioning encourages us to distinguish between what's right and what isn't in our practice.
By way of thanks
A few days before I wrote these lines, you let us know that your health was deteriorating. What sad news, because I truly hoped I'd have the opportunity to meet you one day. I don't know if you'll have the chance to read me, but please know that, behind the scenes and on the job, I'll be one of those carrying the torch of your wisdom and insight.
To learn more:
- Watch a visit with Larry Hodgson, accompanied by some experts from the Jardin botanique de Montréal, as part of the program Dans mon jardin.
- With over 48 million visits, the official Laidback Gardner site is essential for gardening enthusiasts.
- Larry Hodgson took part in the virtual version of the 2020 “Rendez-vous horticole”. In this video he provides advice on properly preparing and maintaining a vegetable garden on the balcony that will produce a terrific harvest of fresh vegetables for you and your family!
- “Larry Hodgson: cueillir les fleurs de la vie” (Larry Hodgson: Gathering the Flowers of Life), Le Soleil newspaper