A Good Home, Gardening, Soil

It’s All In The Soil

Mr. Smith lived in an old house on a double lot on a side street in Toronto.

I remember the first time I glimpsed his garden. It was a Saturday afternoon in mid-summer and I was driving past his home. I did a double-take, hit the brakes, reversed, stopped the car and got out so I could see more.

Blog Photo - Garden Shrubs

A tall, angular, white-haired man was dead-heading some roses. He wore spectacles, was neatly dressed in white shirt and dress trousers as if he was heading for some important meeting. He didn’t look like any gardener I’d ever seen.

Even so, I knew immediately that this was his garden and he was the gardener. I could see it in the way he bent to study his flowers and the soil around them, like an artist studies his unfinished painting on canvas.

Blog Photo - Garden Pink Hollyhocks

I walked up to him and bravely said hello.

He looked up at me, gave a shy little half-laugh. “Hello.”

Something about that half-laugh endeared him to me, along with his grandfatherly age and look.

Blog Photo - Peony deep pink single

His flowers were everywhere. Running their riotous ways around the house and into the distance of his back garden, becoming more muted in the soft shade of trees, then re-emerging in all their glory in the brilliant sunlit spaces.

Blog Photo - Blue Salvia and Yellow

Big, fat dahlias, snapdragons and roses jostled for space with a multitude of other brilliantly-coloured flowers.

The garden was heaven on earth.

Blog Photo - Garden Tall flowers gone wild

One afternoon Mr. Smith invited me into his kitchen for a cold drink. We sat at the small kitchen table and I told him how nicely the garden was doing and he claimed that it was a mess and needed more tending.

Blog Photo - Last Orange Lily

“I’d give a lot to have a garden half as beautiful and lush and healthy as this one,” I said. “It would take me forever, though. How on earth do you get it to look like this?” I peered through the back window and gestured to the garden.

He laughed that humble laugh again, and even seemed to blush.

“It’s all in the soil. Everything starts with good soil.”


This excerpt from my upcoming book “Beloved Gardens” is offered in support for Save The Soils. Thanks to Lori and Robbie, two great bloggers, for the prompt.



56 thoughts on “It’s All In The Soil”

    1. I’m glad. I see your recent set of illustrations is coming along very well, Johanna. Congrats. As you may recall, I still can only draw stick figures – and not very good ones. So hats off to you.

  1. Cynthia, either I have not paid attention or you have just said, you are writing another book, I am so glad and looking forward to reading it. Well done to your husband too, making good compost is an art. Lovely post too.

    1. I wish you could hear the Shelagh Rogers interview as it explains how I started the sequel to A Good Home, got devastated by attempting to write about my experience with PTSD, and decided to do a book about the gardens I have loved.

      Julie, I have mini-memoirs going back 30 years about gardening, parenting and working abroad, so it was already half-written. I added more recent chapters and Hamlin and my painter friend are adding the images, so I hope to see it in print before long.

      1. I wish I could hear that too, I wonder if the radio station would re release your interview as the link on your page does not work either. Is it on you tube by any chance?

      2. Hi Cynthia, in the UK links are often only available for 30 days, I wonder if this is the case here as a message comes up ‘currently unavailable’ when I go through to your link. I have just emailed CBC to ask for help. Possibly there is a recent replay edition? I have just found an old clip of you on You Tube though, in the Jamaica Homecoming interview. I now at least have the sound of your voice, hopefully I can still get to listen to your Next Chapter interview too.

  2. awww…Cynthia-you are the master of story telling-LOVE this story. I hope someday, I become the old lady the kids stop by and chat about gardening!
    “He looked up at me, gave a shy little half-laugh. “Hello.”
    Something about that half-laugh endeared him to me, along with his grandfatherly age and look.”

    You are such a gifted writer-I heard his “hello”….( long sigh)…the soil is the canvas to an artist:-)

    1. I’d ask you about your seashell driveway too young lady!
      It can take a long time to improve a soil and make it vibrant again. The stories I read of gardeners hauling in tons of soil and compost are amazing.

      1. Native plant material is gaining a lot of favor with me for the built in adaptabilty to existing soil. Sorting out which one to use is another project.

  3. When we first came to Oregon from Connecticut, I thought I would have an easier time with some plants as the winters are much milder here. I found the heavy wet clay killed off plants that would normally have survived an eastern winter. Winter is much wetter here, too wet for some species. Hollyhocks do grow well here though, and attract many a hummingbird and bee.

    The photos of that garden are beautiful, and the gardener sounds like a lovely person to know. Glad you stopped in!

    1. Hi Lavinia:
      I must confess: I had no photos of Mr. Smith’s garden. It took me a good while to find photos of my garden that reminded me of what Mr. Smith had growing in his.

      He was my first gardening teacher, and that story was first written years and years ago. But I can still see his influence in our garden today.

  4. What a beautiful story with a whole lot of substance and message. Wonderful, wish we all had a Mr. Smith and his wisdom. Gorgeous photographs too Cynthia!

  5. Great writing and beautiful pictures, Cynthia. I’m looking forward to reading more. The photo of the hollyhocks really spoke to me. I love them and they remind me of home. Any house without hollyhocks growing around it really can’t be a home. (not to me anyway.)

  6. Lovely post, Cynthia! I am so looking forward to your new book! Most gardeners have tales to tell and so much information to impart. You just have to ask the right questions at the right time and you, as we see, have the knack and skill to wheedle these nuggets and gems from their store.

  7. I have not read all the comments, but, did you know that 2015 has been declared the Year of the Soil by the UN? We are losing it at an alarming rate, tilling soil destroys the soil food web, and we are doing our best to get no-till agriculture going at our place. We must find time to blog!

  8. Gorgeous pics! And like all artists, he’s focused on all that he wants to improve upon. But those of us on the outside looking in can appreciate the loveliness of his garden already.

  9. This was one lesson I learned quite recently….the soil is the key!
    Such a nice little story, I could almost see myself sitting in his garden sipping a nice cold drink too 🙂 Thanks for sharing Cynthia, lovely home you have here!

  10. Cynthia, what a treat to view these flowers and to hear of your visit with a kindred spirit. Mr.Smith is wise to say, “It’s all in the soil.” And I would add that inspiring prose is all in the heart. Thank you for again inspiring us from your beautiful soul.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  11. They’re digging out the cellar, or the garden, or a lot of earth at any rate, from one of the shops on our high street. Beautiful jet black earth, all into a skip and carted away. McOther and I have walked past it on separate occasions and I’ve discovered we were looking at it, and having the same thought, “we should have that on our beds.” (flower beds, I mean, obviously). But they fill the skip at break neck speed and it’s gone so fast. I hope someone, somewhere, has put it on a garden, even if it’s just the beds around the municiple tip!



  12. Sorry that’s a bit left field but the soil thing set me off. My Mum, who is a keen gardener, always says that if you look after the soil the garden will look after itself.

    Cheers (again)


  13. I am ready for Spring, these photos make me ready to dig in the dirt and feel Gaia’s heart energy…
    What a beautiful garden you came upon, I would have stopped too 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your world and Mr. Smith’s, I would love to see it in person…

    I was told once by Malcom Beck…you feed the soil, and the soil in turn feeds the plants….I found a wonderful truth in that statement and a way of life in my gardens to be healthy

    Take Care…You Matter…

    1. So true, Mary Rose. I think that is when we become real gardeners that steward our patch of earth – when we realize that we must feed the soil and it will feed the plants.

      1. I like that “steward of our patch of earth” what a beautiful thought, and honor to be rewarded with its care

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