Text by Lisa VanderVliet, OALA
I always knew I wanted to return to the country to live. I was raised on a farm in Southern Ontario, and from a young age planned to have a plant nursery, make a living growing unique crops, and own a house with lots of plants inside and out. I also wanted to create beautiful landscapes. I wanted to be near forests like the ones we had on our farm. But, somehow, I found myself approaching middle age living in suburbia—feeling a little stuck. I never pictured myself as a suburban girl, and I wanted my two boys to have the playground I had growing up. Life has a way of teaching us though, and experiencing a world-wide pandemic and living in isolation can change your outlook on life. I went from viewing my suburban plot as an inadequate stop-over in my journey through life, to a newly discovered paradise. It is human nature that many of us cannot appreciate what we have until we step away and look back, or experience an event that makes us see things differently.
This longing to “go back” was largely due to the fact my siblings and I had one of the best playgrounds you could ever imagine growing up. Our farm was 200 acres in size, too small to make a living on by today’s standards, and the land was never considered premium “working” land with its hills, proliferation of rocks, and wet springs. But it was ideal for childhood explorations and imaginative play. A quarter of our property was a cedar swamp full of springs. Part of that swamp was a rehabilitating gravel pit, and my Dad’s family pastured cows on it. My two sisters, brother, and I spent hours on end exploring the hills of sumac and white cedar. We had stick forts, tree houses, our own private tent sites, ponds, creeks, rafts made out of old barn doors, hills to toboggan on, and, later, trails to snowmobile and mini-bike through.
Part of our farm was a functioning gravel pit. It was a treasure trove of fossilized rocks, granular hills, and silty, shallow ponds with emergent plant species. Not long after we took the farm over from my grandparents, my young siblings and I explored this moonlike territory on a hot spring day. We were too young to swim without our parents’ permission, but these are the things you do when playing in unchartered territory on a hot day and happen to come upon an aqua-blue, clear-bottomed pond. Going back to ask for permission would take too long, and we didn’t want to risk a “no” for an answer. So we stripped down to our t-shirts and underwear and joined the 1,000 or so tadpoles in the pond. We splashed about until I looked up into the setting sun and realized my dad was standing over us. We were all in trouble, but not enough to make us regret one of the greatest days of our childhood. After this great discovery, I remember telling my new classmates at school that we got a pool.
All along the edge of the cedar swamp was the tractor path that lead to the farthest part of the farm. As an adolescent, this solemn path was my saving grace. I took my evening freedom, when all chores were done, and walked along the worn, grassy path. These walks enabled me to sort through all my newfound confusions, as the world around me became more complicated and emotional.
Contrary to the richness of the farm’s landscape and terrain, I noted when we moved to the farm, the house did not look rich at all. As a kid, I was embarrassed of it. It was wooden, covered in red asphalt siding—sometimes referred to as Insulbric—which peels away over time and exposes the raw wood panels beneath. A couple of our windows were covered over inside, but on the outside the window and panes were still in place, exposing pink ﬁberglass insulation behind the glass. My grandparents put white aluminum siding on one side of the house only, and that’s the way it stayed until my parents sold the farm in the mid ‘90s. My negative assessment of the house, however, is how my love of indoor plants travelled to the exterior. From that early age I began to build gardens everywhere to try and improve our homes’ appearance. Any money I made or was given would go towards ﬂowers and shrubs for gardens I had created. The ﬁrst shrub I bought was a Bristol ruby red weigelia. I would drag rocks from the fields, cedars from the swamp, and rusty junk from an old junk pile my grandparents left behind. I made a lily pond and utilized an old rusty sewing machine as a piece of garden decor amongst the ﬂowers. Dad told me I couldn’t keep bringing junk up from the old farm refuse pile and placing it around the house. When mom and dad moved to town later, the old sewing machine moved with them, and it was placed beside their new lily pond. Before dad passed away, he gave the sewing machine back to me and it sits beside my lily pond where I live today— along with many other rusty farm relics, including some old dairy milk cans.
Our current home purchase came much later in life than I ever dreamt. My husband and I were holding out for that rural property until one day I decided that any sized yard would do. The dream rural property would have to wait. That’s when we purchased our ’70’s suburban ﬁxer-upper. I promised myself it would be temporary, a stepping stone. Once we ﬁxed it up, we would sell it for a proﬁt and move to the country where my kids could play. There was no forest or gravel pit at our new home, but it had a large lot and there was a row of mature pines in the backyard for the kids to climb—albeit Austrian. Perhaps worse than the Austrian pines were the ground covers of buckthorn, garlic mustard, creeping nightshade, and periwinkle beneath them. I couldn’t help having a ﬂashbacks to my University of Guelph days as one of Victor Chanasyk’s students. We were not allowed to use Austrian pine as a salt tolerant species because “tip blight was here to stay!” And here I was about to purchase 12 of them in poor-to-moderate condition, with three already looking as though they were succumbing to the dreaded blight.
Fast forward to March of 2020, when we were 12 and a half years living in this same suburbia. In that time, my husband, children, and I had many wonderful gatherings and family moments in our home, creating and growing as creative designers on a blank canvas. But I was continuously judgemental and my thoughts always veered to that future rural property. I would never let my home be quite good enough and I never stopped thinking of it as a mere stopover. My viewpoint changed when we were all forced into self-isolation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and took a pause to ponder our present and future. That’s when my house and lot, without changing at all, became my true refuge and sacred space. I discovered this property could make me as happy as the tractor path did as an adolescent.
Throughout that April, we worked the vegetable garden between snowfalls. We cleaned out our lily pond (my new cedar swamp), and, despite many mornings of ice layers, got our little waterfall running. We ﬁnally got around to trimming those (still) dying Austrian pines. One weekend, we were particularly stressed and worried about the pandemic. We chopped and burned dead wood, debris and branches all day—some of which were still remaining from the ice storm five years previous. The whole process kept us busy and focused on something other than a scary, uncertain future. We built an outdoor ﬁre that smelled good and reminded us all of happy childhood memories. I discovered there is a greater joy in having a backyard ﬁre when you worked all day to clear, gather, and chop wood like it was all that mattered. While I was clearing amongst the pines, I noticed for the ﬁrst time the young native plants and trees we planted near the back of the property—hemlock, cedar, white pine, redbud, dogwood, and black and white spruce—were much higher than me now. With a bit of imagination, you could pretend it was a forest, and judging from the trails amongst the trees, I could see that was where my children and their friends spent hours playing games, in their tree house, swinging on the tree ropes, and jumping on boulders we randomly placed amongst the conifers. I have no doubt this little green oasis we created allowed them to grow and play and gave them a place to solve some of their problems too.
I also grew vegetable seedlings indoors for the ﬁrst time in years. It wasn’t just a hobby to prove to myself what I could do, it felt more like a looming necessity. I needed to prove to myself I could really grow a substantial amount of food. When laying out my vegetable garden, I discovered ways I could ﬁt more vegetables into a deﬁned space. This was in lieu of my former designer method, where the low-textured and colourful vegetable plants went at the front to contrast the larger sculptural ones at the back. Previously, the vegetable garden layout had been at least partially aesthetic.
So, I had done a 180. Most moments during that time, I felt like the luckiest person in the world on a suburban property in Canada. As a young kid on the farm, I had always pretended the farm was comprised of many magical, faraway places. Now I was pretending my suburban lot was my rural farm and oasis. Our creativity had enabled my family and I to have fun with our imaginations. When I am out in public spaces, I take pride in the fact that the work we landscape architects do does this for other people too.
There is no doubt my “ugly” childhood house, and all the gifts the rural land provided, shaped and motivated me into becoming a landscape architect and creating great spaces for communities. Having said that, the pandemic made me realize I had to stop trying to ﬁx everything with landscape architecture, and instead positively direct environments that are affected by people in a manner that is beneficial to all life. I have heard it said, when you feel the need to “ﬁx” things, you see things as broken, wrong, or incomplete. Hindsight is 20/20. There was never anything wrong with the farm house at all. For many social reasons, I had developed this perception it was broken. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with my suburban lot either, just my perception of what I thought “should be.” It’s okay to want to improve things and want to ﬁnd innovative new methods, I just need to remind myself to keep the material and “ownership” notions of improvement in check.
During isolation, I took my family to our old farm for the ﬁrst time. Much of the land is no longer a farm, and what was once a long tree-lined laneway, house, shed and barns is now entirely a gravel pit. The cedar swamp and the hardwood forest are still there, along with about 70 acres of arable farmland. My family and I walked through the old gate at the road and across the gravel and sand expanse. My boys were in awe that I had such a playground as a kid. I walked to the spot where I was pretty sure our house used to be and looked up at the transformed void. Later, when I talked to my mom about our amazing visit, she asked if the transformation from farm into gravel pit made me sad. For whatever reason, it didn’t. Seeing the forests and swamp intact and growing was all I needed to see.
As with any business, farming continues to evolve. Modern farm equipment can now do much more than a single family could do with 100-200 acres 50 years ago, let alone 150-200 years ago when many of Southern Ontario’s farmsteads were ﬁrst established. Over the years, my Dad found three ﬂint arrowheads on three separate occasions, while cultivating the ﬁelds. It made me realize this piece of land has probably been swampy, attracting wildlife suitable for hunting, for a long time before it ever became farmland. The transformative changes on this land likely made people sad long before it was stripped of forest, compartmentalized, and sold off to people new to the continent— a new group of people who obtained food from the land in a completely different manner than the Indigenous people before European settlement. It gave me a sense of peace that some remnants of wildlife could still thrive within that remaining 50 acres of swampy wilderness, despite the land’s transformations. The springs saved it from losing all its original identity.
One of my favourite Indigenous artists, Alex Janvier, spoke of his home in Cold Lake Alberta: “We are the Land and the Land is us.” I don’t profess to understand the depth of these words the way his people did, but I’m pretty sure I have an inkling. My siblings and my spirit still reside in that swamp and forest, along with many other lives. And my spirit now dwells in the organized structure of a suburban community, with my family, closer neighbours, and the plants and trees we placed there, growing in the still-valuable southern Ontario soil. We live with the backyard critters who inhabit these spaces too: creatures unaware of human boundaries. We all thrive the best way we know how and make the best of what we have. I want to keep appreciating and seeing the value of all the things in front of me now. That’s what world-wide events like this pandemic make you realize: that we need to serve the environment that supports our homes with knowledge, creativity, and intelligence. We never know what transformative changes are around the corner—that is life. To be human is to learn and long for things and, as landscape architects, this is part of our craft: to want to change things for the better. Right now, my homestead is my oasis, nurturing my family and I, giving us strength for future transformations.
BIO/ Lisa VanderVliet, OALA, CSLA, is a Project Manager for the Town of Milton who helps create diverse and engaging outdoor spaces within the community. She obtained her BLA and Associate Diploma in Agriculture from the University of Guelph and is an I.S.A. Certified Arborist. Walking amongst well-built and natural landscapes, plants, water and rock inspire her to always keep trying to be better at the creative craft of being a landscape architect, artist, and person.