Maggie and Mike Connell, New Brunswick
Story and photos by Shauna Dobbie
Maggie’s garden explodes with life. Containers at ground and above ground can barely contain the leafy vegetables and eye-smarting colours of zinnias and lilies. Raised vegetable beds have painted signs telling you what’s growing. The country property with a timber house overlooks a valley on one side and has shelters for chickens and turkeys. If Maggie had her way, there would be a shelter for a milk cow, too, but husband Mike disagrees. He is Maggie’s resident engineer, who brings her visions to life.
She darts through the garden, followed by her great-granddaughter Lydia, telling us what’s there, pulling back protective covers and nipping at the occasional (how does she see them?) weed. Everywhere there are innovations, wrought by necessity or by aesthetics or, more likely, a combination of the two. Six-year-old Lydia seems completely aware of the magic of this 50-acre property, where she lives with her parents, Marilyne and Derek, and 2-1/2-year-old brother, Tony, in a house built for them.
There is a fence made of slab wood from a sawmill, the uneven bits with bark attached from the outside of a tree. Maggie is a painter when she isn’t gardening, and she admires the look of the slab wood. “I love that soft curvy kind of thing and I love when things are irregular,” she says.
Cattle panels are bent into archways or framed upright to support different vegetable plants. Everything is planted exactly how it needs to be to grow fat. There is a screen house with narrow shelves near the ceiling, where a series of holes hold garlic upside down. This is where they dry for storage, once the greens are no longer green. Then Maggie takes the garlic down and stores it, with other produce, in a cold room below the house.
Square containers have PVC tubes arranged in an upright frame, joined at the top over blueberry bushes to hold netting tight away from the fruit, which will keep out their golden lab. Each box has cabbage or kale growing in the corners. These are supposed to prefer alkaline soil, the opposite of what blueberries need, yet they look like vegetables painted by Beatrix Potter. Why? It turns out that Maggie had extras started and, since she hates to throw out any growing thing, she stuck them in here. And while they looked lovely, they ended up being wormy. Not a problem; the chickens loved them.
Corrugated culvert pipes, cut to 4-foot lengths by Mike, are stood and filled with soil to grow beans and squash. She painted them black to absorb the heat and has been so pleased with them that, if she had the garden to start again, she’d do all culverts.
The raised beds, including culverts, are Maggie’s solution to aging in the garden. She’s 71 now and plans to keep going until she’s 103. She figures it’ll be easier if she doesn’t need to bend down. Everything is geared to sustainability. Still, 103 seems to be a stretch for anyone to keep a garden producing, but with Maggie, you not only believe it, you wonder why she isn’t planning for 110. Her intelligence and enthusiasm give her a vitality that seems unextinguishable. “I’ve never had a sense of limit somehow. I’m not sure why, but I’ve never had it and sometimes it’s been to my detriment, for sure.”
Now, the edibles make a gorgeous landscape on their own, and medicinal plants grow among them, but there are also flowers to consider. Geraniums spill out of window boxes, Asiatic lilies, zinnias and gayfeather strain at the confines of raised boxes. Behind some feverfew, leaves attest that ligularia is coming soon. More leaves elsewhere indicate that peonies bloomed about a month earlier. She puts time into flowers because aesthetics are an important part of this artist’s life.
“We forget that beauty counts,” she says. “You know we want to be practical. OK, what’s this going to cost us? What’s the most efficient thing to do here? Blah blah blah, but we forget about the part that makes our heart sing. And my heart sings when I see something beautiful. It seems even louder when I make something beautiful.”
This property was a clear-cut full of ruderal young poplars infested by army worms the first time Maggie laid eyes on it, 35 years ago. She thought there was no hope of her buying it, but she had made the trip to see it, so she got out of the car and clambered over stumps to have a look. There is a big old maple that was (and is) still standing, behind where the house is now. She climbed up the maple and looked down and saw the valley below.
“Honest to God, I sat there and I just cried. I said, I don’t know how I’m gonna do this, especially on my own but somehow I’m dying here.” So, she made the purchase and eventually built the house and began to conjure her paradise.
As for the view from the maple tree, it has been softened to a heart-aching vista. You can see it on the cover of this magazine.