I’ve always been a firm believer in growing local
Every once in a great while you meet a person who seems to have been put on this earth for a singular purpose; they might be good – even great – at any number of things but there will always be one passion from which, once discovered, they cannot escape. For Robert, that passion is gardening and it has been burning in him since he was a young man.
Robert, a native of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, was first exposed to gardening almost by accident in his early 20s, upon returning from travels abroad.
“When I first left home I traveled for a number of months,” he recalls. “And when I came back to Canada I settled in Edmonton, renting a room from my aunt and uncle.”
Before long, the always industrious Robert had built a social circle for himself and bought a share in the aptly named General Store, a small market selling health foods, high-end camping gear, and pottery, among other things. It was there at General Store he came across a book on French intensive gardening and his interest was immediately piqued.
French intensive gardening is a detail-oriented method of cultivation which allows for maximum plant growth in relatively small beds, an idea which struck a chord with Robert, whose aunt and uncle had a vast backyard which was currently being neglected.
“Next, I created a compost mulcher,” Robert recalls. “There was a washing machine motor, a rotor from an old lawn mower…I found all this stuff in the garage.”
He created a mulch pile using food scraps donated by the local Safeway, raised beds and, by summer’s end, had more food than he knew what to do with.
Years later, in 1983, Robert’s expertise brought him to the attention of the federal government who invited him to set up a grounds maintenance and greenhouse growing program at the Saskatchewan Federal Penitentiary near Prince Albert.
“I had to teach the inmates how to grow in a greenhouse,” says Robert. “How to set up an irrigation system, integrated pest management…it was a great opportunity.”
Initially finding his colleagues to be frustratingly stuck in their ways, Robert elected to spend his downtime with the inmate members of the grounds team, playing cards and smoking cigarillos. This chummy set-up lasted until his second year, when Robert tired of the convict’s nearly constant attempt to con favors and preferential treatment out of him; that an inmate charged after him with a pitchfork most certainly didn’t help.
“He came out of the greenhouse with a pitchfork, screaming,” Robert remembers. “He felt I was somehow responsible for costing him privileges in the prison, so he came after me. All I could do was hope he was bluffing, so I turned my back and started to walk away. Thankfully, he was.”
Robert left the corrections industry in 1988 and spent the next 20 years growing food in greenhouses, operating garden centers and market gardens, on the one hand, and on the other working on social economic development in the nonprofit community sector, another of Robert’s passionate interests. In 2013, chronic migraines ended his 8-year stint as a policy analyst for the Saskatchewan provincial government, a condition which Robert attributes to too much time spent sitting and staring at a computer screen.
“I had to take a year off work because of the migraines,” he says. “Then I went back to work after a year, with a new supervisor and a new job – a relatively comfortable position. I worked there for three months and decided I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Robert needed to quit not only the government but Moose Jaw as well, and so he began to plan a move out west, settling on Victoria because of its natural beauty.
“It’s ‘the Garden City’”, says Robert. “It doesn’t matter where you are there’s always some kind of natural break – rocks, waterway, some trees. I liked that.”
While the move would take him closer to the place in life he felt he needed to be, it wouldn’t be an easy transition.
“But I was going through some kind of growth crisis and needed to break out of the situation, Robert says of the move.
His new start in Victoria presented Robert with an opportunity to rekindle his oldest passion. “I decided to buy a business – a lawn and garden business,” he says.
And so since 2014 he has been the owner and operator of Tom’s Lawns and Gardens, a small but profitable company with clients from Sidney to Victoria. Now Robert is looking to expand his horizons, moving into the design and installation of kitchen gardens – small, aesthetically pleasing food gardens which he hopes will help better connect people to their food.
“I’ve always been a firm believer in growing local,” he says. “I believe in the energy of a place and so it makes sense to me that the food you grow in a certain place will help you thrive in that place. Looking back on my experiences, my learning, my likes and desires, I feel this is a good fit.”
Outside of work, Robert prides himself on living a balanced simple life, in which listening to music, preparing wholesome nutritious meals, riding his bike on the Goose Trail, hiking nearby hills and beaches, taking a kayaking course, meditating and learning shamanism, reading and aquarelle painting are important ongoing activities. Get in touch via the contact form below to find out more about Robert’s kitchen gardens.