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The real dirt on garden inspiration


Gardeners are inspired by the first sighting of a spring robin and the annual ritual of raising robust young ready for life’s adventure. Donald McClure photo

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
-Margaret Atwood

Donald McClure The County Gardener

Donald McClure
The County Gardener

I believe it is the warm, pungent smell of thawing earth that starts the process.   Inhaling the scent of soil on the first warm, sunny spring morning presses a secret button in the mind that initiates notions of renewal, visions of possibilities,  and a desire to transform our little world into …well, something pretty special.

It was three minutes after Easter Sunday midnight when I arrived  in this world and this may be why I have always found a close association with the magic of spring  and its  association with the renewal of life.

Of course it could be a fascination with the first robin exploring the lawn, or that creeping tinge of green enveloping the countryside, or the swelling of  buds or the vigourous intrusion of tulip or daffodil leaves, or the glimpse of the first honey bee hovering over a crocus.


tulip in the wind

The glorious colours of spring woven by the first bulbs of tulips and daffodils raises our spirits and our consciousness by enveloping nature in a stunning array. Donald McClure photo

Or it could be the memory of standing in the bush on a Muskoka hillside watching spring water wash around diamond icicles clinging in the moss and listening to the cadence-ringing of Molly’s  cowbell as the Brown’s Jersey struggles up the slope towards her renewed pasture.

Each of us have our rites of spring — our sacred memories that return each year as the winter releases her grip.

Spring is  the time to marvel at life’s recommencement, to think rededication, of new opportunities to change our personal world and transform visions of accomplishment to the  actuality of creation.  As one gardener commented:  “Half the interest of the garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.”

Spring is the canvas upon which we can display colours, shapes and patterns creatively to evoke an indwelling human response.

spring beauty

Along the shady hedgerows and in the cool woods, this shy spring beauty explodes into life to herald the awakening of a new season. Donald McClure photo

Perhaps if humans  spent  more time in the garden than they do in front of the tube or on the phone, mankind might be the beneficiary. The prospect of getting out in the garden after a long and daunting winter is like a breath of freshness through our whole being.

How did Francis Bacon express it?  “The garden is the purest of human pleasures.  It is the greatest refreshment to the spirit of man.”

Catharine Park Trail knew about the feeling in 1833, expressed in writing back to England from her new home looking down on Rice Lake, Ontario.

She is the proper young English woman who emigrated with her military husband  in 1832.  Well educated in botany, her letters were collected to form the book Backwoods of Canada which became quite a literary  success.

“I am anxiously looking forward to spring” she wrote “that I may get a garden laid out in front of the house.  I mean to cultivate some native fruits and flowers which I am sure will improve greatly with culture.”


In her visions were wild strawberries, wild grapes, apples, black and

Eastern Redbud

Suddenly the Eastern Redbud, gushes mauve flowers all along its branches and you know it is alive and adding its splendour to the season. Donald McClure photo

red currents, gooseberry and “ trailing raspberries.” She also asked her family in the old country to  parcel up flower seeds,  and “the stones of plums, damsons. bullace (rose variety that bears plum-like fruit) and pips of the best kind of apples…”

Like so many of us Catharine realized that the act of  gardening opens up  an opportunity to come in personal contact with the soil – from which all growth begins.  And we can be as active in our participation as our mind and body will allow.

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way:”When I go into my garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands”

Gardener Rumer Godden expressed it this way:  “A garden isn’t meant to be useful.  It’s for joy.”

A symbol of life's continual renewal, the splendid fritilaria imperialis planted by a former owner returns each spring as it has for 22 years to energize and highlight our spring garden. Donald McClure photo

A symbol of life’s continual renewal, the splendid fritilaria imperialis planted by a former owner returns each spring as it has for 22 years to energize and highlight our spring garden. Donald McClure photo

Filed Under: News from Everywhere Else

About the Author: He can tickle your funny bone or tug at your heart strings. County people may know him as a chronicler of everything that happens (or should happen) in the garden, but his interests stretch across the natural world. His unique sense of observation takes in a wide expanse of living and may even point out some truths about our own condition as managers of the world around us. With Loyalist antecedents in his family tree his roots go deep into the Ontario countryside.

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  1. We are like spirits M. Gallgher! One special day on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park trying to push an aluminum boat through rotting ice at the Narrows left me forever with the background sounds of “popping” as the sun rays penetrated the ice and started it cracking. Would have made a great recording. Thanks for your kind remarks.

  2. Thank you Sarah. The weather has been playing games with us this year — but when the warmth finally returns in earnest our patience will be repaid with bountiful gadens. Best wishes

  3. sarah says:

    An inspiring article Donald with gorgeous photo’s! Can’t wait to be free of the snow and into the warm sun filled garden!

  4. M Gallagher says:

    “… watching spring water wash around diamond icicles clinging in the moss…” You are a poet. I have never gotten over the fascination with watching ice melt and drip and shimmer in the early spring. And the unique smell that comes from sun shining on that melting ice.

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