On being ... a beeliever

By Ingrid Sapona

Over the years I’ve grown flowers and herbs on my balcony. A couple years ago I tried growing tomatoes but was disappointed. I think I got four tomatoes from it all season and I felt I must have done something wrong. The following year I tried growing a mixture of lettuces. My godmother always has a big bowl of it growing on her patio. Since I love salad, I thought I’d give growing it a try. The lettuce grew and filled out the container, but I was never sure how or when to harvest it. So I found that experiment disappointing too. 

This year – in a utilitarian mood – I planned to stick to herbs because I love having them for cooking. So, in May, I went to the nursery to get the herbs I wanted. While I was looking around, I noticed a little plant I hadn’t seen before. The tag said “Everbearing Strawberries”. Given my track record with tomatoes and lettuce, I figured in my case “everbearing” would end up being a synonym for “never bearing”.

Well, in a moment of weakness (and pricing savvy by the nursery, with three plants for $7 the strawberry plant would be my sixth), I added one to my cart. When I got home, I dutifully re-planted it in the largest container I had. The small clump in the middle of the big pot looked woefully lonely.

The following week a friend and I were driving around in wine country and we stopped at a farm that was selling heirloom tomato plants. The tags showed pictures and described the unusual varieties. So, despite my previous underwhelming crop, I broke down and bought one of them too. As soon as I re-planted it, it became something from Jack in the Bean Stalk, growing inches per day.

Meanwhile, I e-mailed a friend who has a master gardener designation for advice on tending the tomato plant, given my previous experience. She said she thought the heirloom plant would be fine, “so long as bees can find it”. Hmmm… bees.

I told her I’ve seen bees on the balcony before (I once had an African basil plant that the bees loved), so I assumed they’d “find” the tomato plant. She then said, “Well, you can always pollinate it by hand – all you need is a craft paintbrush.”

By hand? No way. Besides the fact that I wouldn’t know where to begin (well, I guess you begin with the blossoms), I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. Though the prospect of heirloom tomatoes is appealing, I couldn’t see myself out there with a craft paintbrush. I decided to have faith that the bees would find the plant. Besides, at that point, the plant didn’t even have any blossoms.

Despite being knocked over during a few windstorms, and seeming a bit waterlogged after a few heavy rains, by late June all the plants were thriving. The little strawberry plant was especially beautiful. It filled the pot and its lovely, shiny dark leaves created an elegant crown that – to my delight – was dotted with lovely little white flowers that looked like precious gems. It’s such a handsome plant, I didn’t care if it ever yields any berries.

Meanwhile, a few little yellow blossoms had come out on the tomato plant. So, all I needed were some bees to find the strawberry flowers and tomato blossoms. Granted, I don’t spend a lot of time on the balcony, but – unlike in previous years – so far I haven’t seen a single bee. Friends of mine have a farm and have hives and I know that something like half of them died over the winter, so I know bees are in short supply. Given that my balcony is five stories up, and given the dearth of bees, I figured it was understandable that I’ve not seen any.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I noticed something remarkable: little white strawberries had sprouted where some flowers once were, and many of the yellow blossoms on the tomato plant have become little tomatoes! I couldn’t believe it. It was like magic! A few days later, when I saw that one of the strawberries had turned red, before picking it I took a picture of it. I wanted proof of the miracle, just in case it was the only one that ripened.

I’m pleased to say that to date I’ve harvested about a dozen of the little treats – and more are well on their way. Though they’re all on the petite size, they are delicious. But, the best thing about them is that each one seems like a personal gift from Mother Nature to me.

As ridiculous as this may sound, the fact that the bees found my plants and worked their magic has changed the way I see produce in stores and markets. Now, whenever I see a piece of fruit or a vegetable, I think about the anticipation the farmers must have had – and their fears about what bad weather might do to their precious plants, not to mention the concern they must have about whether there are enough bees. I blithely ruled out the paintbrush-pollination my friend mentioned, but what if in the future there are no bees left? Sadly, we can’t rule that out.

If you’ve ever grown any fruits or vegetables, I’m sure you know the thrill I’m talking about. If you haven’t grown anything you can eat, give it a try. Doing so offers rewards – and appreciation for Mother Nature – well beyond any morsels of food the plant may yield. 

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... unbridled

By Ingrid Sapona

My sister and I went to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth last week – also known as the Calgary Stampede – and so I can’t resist the equine reference in the title. But the truth is, our trip out west brought back into focus some ways of being that were noteworthy to me and that are the exact type of thing I’d write a column about, so the title is apt.

First, a bit of background about the trip: it was to celebrate a milestone birthday of my eldest sister. She and I flew from Toronto to Calgary and spent a few days there – including a day at the Stampede. My other sister had been to the Stampede before but she joined us afterward for three heavenly days of sightseeing, spa-ing, and celebrating in beautiful Banff. 

I had been to the Stampede years ago and loved it. My impression of Calgary during Stampede Week was of a city-wide celebration where everyone – from bank teller, to bartender, to cab driver – is wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, and a cowboy hat. I thought my eldest sister would enjoy it since she likes country western things.

I was in charge of making the key reservations for the trip. I booked the hotels, the plane tickets, the car rental, and the rodeo tickets. I had also gotten some recommendations from friends of places to eat and other things to do. As the time for the trip approached, I started getting a sense of eldest sister’s excitement as she e-mailed me with regular updates about the terrible flooding Calgary suffered just two weeks before the Stampede and her relief that the show would go on – Come Hell or High Water, as Stampede officials put it.

My sister, who lives in the States, drove up here because we were flying out together. On the bus to the Toronto airport, a young woman was seated between me and my sister. When the woman realized we were together, she offered to switch seats with me. I joked that that wasn’t necessary because my sister and I would have the whole week together, which was more than enough.

After that, the young woman, who had already broken the ice, chatted with me the rest of the bus ride. After we got off the bus, I filled my sister in about my conversation. I also mentioned to my sister that I wasn’t surprised that the woman was American because Canadians are pretty reserved and they don’t tend to engage strangers in conversation like that. My sister seemed mildly surprised by my comment.

Our first night in Calgary we had a drink with some friends of mine. We had a nice time and I could tell my sister’s excitement was building. I could see she was making mental notes of all the things my friends mentioned regarding what to see and do at the Stampede. Later that evening she poured over the Stampede schedule, anxious to plan the next day so we wouldn’t miss anything.

Our first event at the Stampede was the international horse shoeing competition. The farriers had one hour to make two custom shoes for their horse. The whole thing was fascinating with an MC explaining what was going on at each step. While we were waiting for the judge’s results, the 40-piece Band of Outriders marched into the arena. They were a rag-tag looking bunch in Blues Brothers-type sunglasses and matching plaid shirts that played and danced as the results were tabulated. They were very entertaining and certainly kept the waiting crowd engaged.

Later that afternoon, as we were walking around, a young man from the band was walking alone past us. To my surprise, my sister stopped him and said we had seen them play after the horse shoeing and she told him how much she enjoyed the band. He politely thanked her and hurried off. A few minutes later she spotted another band member about 10 feet away and the next thing I know, she had made a beeline toward him. Before I could catch her, she had stopped him to thank him for the band’s great playing.

I have to say, I was a bit embarrassed. In my mind, I justified the embarrassment based on the fact that it’s just not the Canadian thing to do and – in my mind – the fact that both band members seemed really surprised by the encounter further supported my sense of embarrassment. But, I didn’t know how to tell my sister that I was embarrassed. So, in the time-honoured Sapona tradition of indirect speech patterns, I said, “You’re not going to stop all 40 band members, are you?” She didn’t pick up on the subtext of my comment. Instead, she enthusiastically replied, “Why not? They were great!”   

The sincerity and immediacy of her reply hit me like a ton of bricks. She was absolutely right. We had enjoyed the band’s playing and entertaining and there was nothing wrong with letting them know. If her praise catches people (myself included) off guard, so what!

After that, every time she chatted up a stranger or mentioned we were celebrating her birthday, I basked in the reflected glow of her excitement. And you know what? It made a great trip even better!

And so, with this column, I want to thank my sister for reminding me of how much sweeter life is when you take things in with a smile and an open heart and when you aren’t afraid to share your unbridled enthusiasm.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona