More about Marjorie: Force of Nature. Ron Graham, Toronto Life ’99

Marjorie Harris never set out to become the country’s best-known gardener. It happened almost by accident while she was looking for something she lost as a child.

BY RON GRAHAM (Toronto Life, July 1999)

BLESSED PLOT OF EARTH IN DOWNTOWN Toronto that has become an inspiration to garden-lovers across Canada. Measuring a mere nineteen by 100 feet, it is hardly the grandest in the city. Nor, for all its delights, can it be judged the most beautiful. Its fame rests upon the fact that it is owned, tended and frequently described by Marjorie Harris, whose books, columns, magazines, broadcasts, speeches and Web site have made her the country’s best-known gardener and her backyard in the Annex a local Sissinghurst writ small.

Yet there is a story buried within this garden she’s never told, even though it may be the most inspiring story of all. Within her warm, funny, enthusiastic, spunky spirit there lie secrets, sorrows and insecurities she admits are “too painful” to write about. Few of her many fans could guess at the toil and perfectionism behind her chatty writing style or the vulnerability and trepidation she feels before delivering one of her charming slide shows. Nor could they imagine the sufferings out of which have come–like flowers from dirt — her strength and joie de vivre.

“I was trained to always put on a sunny face she says, “and I guess I just became that way. Even when things got really bad, I felt lucky to be alive. I mean, I love being alive!” Another time, when discussing a dear friend’s illness, she mentions, “If I start crying about it, I’ll never stop, so I won’t start.” She’s a survivor, with a will of iron and a heart of gold, who just won’t be defeated. Instead, she charges on into the world or seeks sustenance in her garden.

When challenged to justify all the attention she pays her garden (usually by people who would prefer she pay more to theirs), she prefers to respond without apology or psychology. “It’s my teacher, my guide and certainly my encyclopedia of plants,” she writes in her latest book, Seasons of My Garden, which is dedicated exclusively to it. And, thanks to it — she is the first to recognize–she has been transformed rather late and unexpectedly in life from just another Grub Street pedlar into the best-selling author of more than a dozen books, doyenne of Gardening Life magazine, popular lecturer, TV host and flower-show celebrity.

From the start she decided that the garden had to pay for itself, with an article here and there. Now it pays for everything. In fact, she is one of the very few gardeners in North America who can make a decent living just by writing about gardens, as opposed to planning or supplying them as well. The only downside has been a certain amount of contempt from degree-toting professionals and old-time horticulturalists, who cattily dismiss her as an amateur, an arriviste, a hack, every time she mistakes a flower for a bract.

Harris doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a journalist. Nor, as a thirty-year veteran of ceaseless combat against demanding editors, evasive subjects, awkward sentences and the wolf at the door, has she balked at making hay from the mulch of her daily existence, be it her husband’s vasectomy or her son’s pierced ear. “It’s an odd combination of arrogance and humility,” she explains with a huskiness in her voice that betrays the heavy smoker she once was. “I somehow believe I’m Everyperson, so if I’m interested in something, a lot of other people must be, too. Nothing escaped my notice in our family that could be turned into something useful.”

Indeed, much of her success can be attributed to her device of making the pleasures and hardships of gardening so down to earth. Her prose makes her sound like a gardener who’s just come in from doing the work. Which is often the case. Most mornings between April and November she’s out from 5:30 to eight digging, transplanting and arranging, a quick breakfast, then into her cramped ground-floor office to write until noon, back to the garden for a bit before and after lunch, at her computer most afternoons, then more spadework until dinner. Her day usually ends with a glass of wine out on the deck, as she ponders what to move around tomorrow or frets about all the commitments she’s taken on until 2001.

Such an intense labour of love only raises the question, Why the arduous hours and never-say-no ambition at an age when most grandmothers are happy just to smell the roses? The money helps, of course. As someone who’s never had enough of it, she knows the freelancer’s occupational dread of the day the muse succumbs to exhaustion, the phone stops ringing and the advances dry up. She’s certainly not shy about flogging her own books after each lecture, personally providing change from a bag of cash she calls the “float,” and part of her evening ritual includes worrying about her investment portfolio. The fame’s nice, too, after the self-effacing vassalage of cleaning up other people’s copy, churning out personality profiles for City Woman or lifestyle pieces for Successful Executive. She clearly enjoys the recognition when a stranger asks if she’s “the garden lady,” and she almost always makes an extra effort to be friendly, interested and helpful.

But her own explanation suggests the root of her dedication is neither so practical nor so vainglorious: it verges on the mystical. One snowy morning early in 1986 she was sitting having a cup of coffee at her kitchen table, staring out the picture window into the yard–a typical downtown “bowling alley,” as she has described it, which had begun in the late sixties as an “illustration for urban poverty” and been halfheartedly fixed up with the obvious perennials, a few traditional shrubs, a vegetable patch, some grass and an asphalt basketball court at the back for the kids. Suddenly she saw, as though in a vision, that the first third of it should be arranged into a checkerboard pattern of flat stones interspersed with a riot of plants. “The image just came into my head. I don’t know where it came from.”

After a year of studying everything she could about soil, plants and design and experimenting on her own, she got some professional help from landscaper Curtis Driedger. The two-by-two patio stones were laid according to her vision; the middle third of the yard was ripped up and sculpted into a semicircular berm edged by a winding path; and Marjorie Harris became, in her own words, “completely and utterly obsessed” with vibumums and alliums, pulmonarias and campapulas, hellebores and hostas, meadow rue and Schizophragma hydrangeoides. “I was approaching fifty, the kids were gone, and I wanted to change my life,” she says. “I was tired of being scattered. I did an interview around that time with this really boring businessman. Halfway through, I thought, I hate this. Freelancing was no longer illuminating or fun.”

The ground had also been prepared, so to speak, for her second epiphany, which occurred one afternoon in the spring of 1988 as she was walking along Kendal Avenue. Frustrated at not finding solutions to the scores of problems she was having with her garden, and inspired by the classics of the genre such as Russell Page’s The Education of a Gardener and Garden Design by Sylvia Crowe, she hit upon the idea of writing a gardening book especially for Canadians. She had a complete outline in her head by the time she reached home.

She first took her book proposal to two publisher friends, Linda McKnight and Anna Porter, who liked the idea but had to pass on it for one reason or another. At McKnight’s suggestion, however, she tried Ed Carson at Random House, who was interested enough to come over to her house himself — catching her out back in a filthy T-shirt with dirty hands because she hadn’t been expecting him till the next day. Carson commissioned her and photographer Tim Saunders to produce what was to become a huge success; a decade later, The Canadian Gardener still sells hundreds of copies each year. “Tim and I travelled across the country,” she recalls, “being passed from one person along to another, building a network of gardeners and experts. Nobody knew who I was, but everybody we met was proud of what they were doing and wanted to share it. They opened up their world to us. I was convinced for a long time that all gardeners are nice people.”

By happenstance more than foresight, the publication of The Canadian Gardener in the fall of 1990 coincided with the gardening craze that was just on the verge of sweeping North America. Roses and rhododendrons were no longer the strange perversion of elderly eccentrics in Tilley hats and wellingtons; rare orchids and oriental exotics were no longer the exclusive hobby of wealthy estate-owners with groundskeepers and greenhouses. The result was a multibillion-dollar industry based on urban gardens, garden centres, gardening books and magazines, landscape architects and designers, and horticultural societies ranging from rocks to ferns to native grasses. “Marjorie’s luck,” says her old friend, journalist Robert Fulford, “was to have discovered what she really liked writing about at the very moment when that subject became one of the hottest subjects anywhere. As a result, her days became filled in a much more engaging way, with lots of interesting new people, and her life gained a more obvious purpose, which she, rather than some editor, was able to direct.”

Sociologists are still trying to explain the phenomenon. Some see gardening as an aesthetic experience, equivalent to the fashion for museum-going and art-collecting. Others see it as a baby-boomer recreation, offering the same combination of slow-motion exercise, suppressed competitiveness and fresh air as bird-watching or golf. Then there is gardening as a political statement–“II faut cultiver notre jardin,” as Voltaire’s Candide most famously phrased it–reflective of the trend to pull away from public affairs into private spaces. Or gardening as an economic indicator, responsive to a surplus of capital and leisure time. By far the most common theory interprets it as an expression of the atavistic longing of city folk to reconnect with nature in a personal and tangible way: a “back-to-the-land” movement without any of the discomforts or inconveniences of country living.

“By the end of the greedy eighties,” Harris says, “a lot of people had finished their home renovations, and when they turned their attention outside, they were really appalled by how ugly everything looked. All at once it became easier to find other gardeners, and local clubs of like-minded people sprang up spontaneously. After a while they demanded more than beauty: they wanted a spiritual retreat, too. People were barely surviving under the pressures of the city, the noise and smell had numbed their senses, and they could no longer afford to go off and buy a cottage as an escape. So everybody’s little garden took on this huge load of meaning.”

Each and every one of these theories could apply to Marjorie Harris. Aesthetically, for instance, the colours and textures of gardening satisfy her lifelong fascination with beauty. “My eye was trained,” she writes in Seasons of My Garden, “by looking at paintings during the many years I’d worked in an art gallery.” That had been her first substantial job, around the time her first husband deserted her with little more than an incomplete master’s degree and two small children. She happened to be in the Here & Now gallery on Cumberland Street one day in 1960 when she overheard Dorothy Cameron, the owner, talking over the phone about needing an assistant with certain specific qualities. Harris must have seemed like a gift from God when, returning an hour later, she just happened to have the very attributes Cameron was seeking.

“I had four fabulous years there,” she says. “I lugged paintings around, I put shows together, I did the paperwork, and I met many of the people who have been in my life ever since. I only quit because knowing that a beautiful painting had been done by some whiny, shitty person was beginning to interfere with my love of art.”

Her next real job also had a strong visual component. She had befriended Sandy Ross, then managing editor of Maclean’s and part of the gang of media types with whom she liked to share a drink or five in the rooftop bar at the Park Plaza. Over a lunch in 1966, Ross mentioned he was looking for a modern-living editor to head up a section about food, fashion and design. He encouraged her to apply. Much to her surprise, and based solely on a CBC Radio commentary she had once done, she got the job and threw herself into learning fast about magazine writing and editing, as well as about food, fashion and design.

“It was another fabulous four-year job,” she says. “It was the sixties, remember, and I was given incredible freedom to experiment with new, off-the-wall ideas without having to worry if they made commercial sense or not. I snuck a lot of art into the magazine. I did things like use really elaborate Pre-Raphaelite sets to illustrate a feature about underwear, and I got people like Arnaud Maggs to do fashion shoots.”

Even after her shift from editing to writing, and especially with her garden books, Harris has remained exceptionally concerned with the aesthetic context of the words. Toronto Life Gardens, which she helped start in 1996, and its successor, Gardening Life, which she currently oversees as editor-in chief, have been honoured with numerous awards for their design and pictorial excellence. She collaborates closely with the production staff and photographers who work on her books until she’s completely happy with the look. And she often describes the gardens she loves, not least her own, as a canvas, a tapestry, a composition, or “a vibrant and sensual picture” that will reveal itself, like a painting, if you sit still for long enough and pay attention.

With regard to the demographics and politics of gardening, too, Harris epitomizes the North American trend: a middle-aged empty-nester with a bit more time and money on her hands cocooning into a slower, quieter, more solitary activity. In fact, according to Fulford, politics is one of the few subjects in which she shows little genuine interest. “She’s basically a serious person who’s also a lot of fun,” he says. “She really cares about serious subjects such as music, literature, art and religion, and she’s much better-read than most. When it comes to politics, however, her views are standard liberal, without any deviations or unusual edges.” Predictably, perhaps, but of significance nonetheless, the two exceptions have been her ardent espousal of feminism in the early seventies — when she went from being “one of the boys” to becoming “one of the girls” at weekly consciousness-raising sessions attended by women such as artist Joyce Wieland and lawyer Rosalie Abella — and her equally proselytizing concern for the environment. Almost immediately upon reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, she stopped drinking Toronto’s tap water, and she raised her children on the household rule “If it’s advertised on TV, we don’t buy it!” Two other byproducts were the organic vegetable patch, similar to the ones her parents had kept, and a compost pile, which was such a novelty at the time that her neighbour denounced her to the health department. Many people, including some old acquaintances who know little about her background, tend to assume that her green thumb and love of nature stemmed from a pastoral childhood spent somewhere on the prairies. Nothing could be less true. Marjorie Harris happened to be born in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, because it was the first of more than a dozen towns, villages and cities to which her father, Bernard Stibbards, was posted as a Baptist minister. He soon got moved, probably for being more liberal than most of his congregation, and the family was on the road until he signed up as an air force chaplain and went off to war. Harris and her mother, Kay, a London bobby’s daughter, awaited his return in Winnipeg along with a younger brother and sister. “I was never really mothered,” Harris says. “Later I figured out that my mother found it difficult to be a mother because she had lost her own in childbirth, but at the time I thought it was my fault. Though I’d do my damnedest to please her, nothing was ever good enough. She even became jealous when I learned to cook better than she did and became better educated. We had a rough ride, the two of us. I must have been about seven or eight when Dad came home from the war. I remember screaming at the sight of this huge stranger in a uniform in our house. But Dad was easygoing and enjoyable to be around, though there was a cruel edge to his humour. You had to develop the hide of a rhinoceros if you didn’t want to get hurt. And he set very high standards: it was our duty to be the best.” In fact, except for a couple of stretches in Goose Bay, Labrador, and Rivers, Manitoba, almost all of Marjorie Harris’s life has been spent in big cities: as a teenager in Vancouver, as a university student in Hamilton, and as a wife, mother and journalist in Toronto. She’s very much a city girl, most at home at jazz clubs and Tafelmusik concerts, book launches and vernissages. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto, she shamelessly persuaded Northrop Frye to hold his seminars in her ratty apartment near Yorkville when she was pregnant with her first child, and though she was an extremely responsible mother, she fantasized about leading a Bloomsbury life with witty conversations, avant-garde notions and wild parties full of academics and artists.

In the fifties her style had been a combination of Audrey Hepburn and beatnik-big eyes, black turtlenecks, flowing capes, long hair done in a knot on top. She’d let it loose, given enough Johnnie Walker Black, and sing a little Edith Piaf. In the sixties it was sexy miniskirts and the short Louise Brooks cut she still favours today. Peter Gzowski once eyed her arriving at a party and remarked, “Ah, more people, I see, but not many more clothes.” (Harris is now back into the blacks and muted browns of her late teens, with comfort and practicality weighing over fashion–she’d rather buy a new shrub than a new outfit any day–and her youthful appearance is enhanced by the remarkable lack of grey in her naturally brown hair.)

“Holy Nellie, did we have social lives!” she says. “And, boy, did we drink! I remember going to a party where only beer and wine were served and thinking, Are these people poor or what? It was the dawning of a new era.”

In other words, there was nothing particularly obvious or inevitable about Harris’s becoming a gardening enthusiast and authority. She wasn’t heeding the standard advice to writers, “Write about what you know,” since she really didn’t know anything about gardens until she began to write about them. Nor was she taking Joseph Campbell’s advice for happiness and success, “Follow your bliss,” since gardening didn’t really become her bliss until after it had made her happy and successful. And if she were merely seeking a new focus for her extraordinary energy, why didn’t she get obsessed about jazz, food, art or any of her other interests?

“She phoned me up one day,” recalls Betsy Kilbourn, one of her closest friends, “yelling, ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found it!’ ‘Found what?’ I asked. ‘Gardening!’ she said. I was astonished. I had no idea she had any real inclination in that direction. What struck her, I have no idea.” An important clue lies without examination, as an aside, in the opening chapter of Seasons of my Garden. “I think of myself as a child of nature,” she writes, “someone who grew up preferring to be in the woods rather than out on the streets of whatever town we lived in. My major childhood memories are of being in Labrador, collecting leaves, collating information on wildflowers and tearing about scaring myself half to death if I actually saw a wild animal on the trail.”

But why would the few years she spent in Goose Bay between the ages of ten and twelve contain her “major childhood memories” or be, as she has stated, “where my life was formed”? Partly, of course, because she was old enough to wander in the taiga by herself and retain what she observed. Partly because it was there that she was fortunate enough to encounter two inspirational teachers, who, as she puts it, “took the top of my head off and stuffed it full of knowledge”: Mr. Potts, with his infectious dedication to English literature and proficient composition, and Miss Sharp, who taught her all about wildflowers and woodlands. Most important of all, Labrador was the last place she remembers her family doing things together. Not long after leaving Goose Bay, Kay Stibbards was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and given six months to live–which was prolonged into three years of hell.

Harris was fifteen and a half years old when her mother passed away. “It was a nightmare beyond belief,” she says,” but as preacher’s kids, we were expected to be a model to the community and just stiff-upper-lip our way through it. I basically had to run the house from the time my mother got sick. I was responsible for the younger kids, I cooked the meals, I did everything but clean up. To this day I’m a really good cook and a total slob!”

Then, a year or so later, within a few months of moving to Vancouver, the family faced a second tragedy. Bernard Stibbards was killed in a plane crash on his way to preach in Tofino. “I had a horrible feeling that morning,” Harris remembers. “I begged him not to go. ‘Sure,’ he said, ‘I’ll just call up my group captain and tell him my daughter’s ordered me to stay.’ So I hugged-him and kissed him and that was that. Two hours later they told us the plane was lost, but I knew you don’t lose planes. It took a week for them to confirm his death, because they had to send climbers to find the wreckage on Mount Arrowsmith.”

That was her first encounter with the media. “They were a bunch of pigs. One guy came to the door and asked to use the telephone because he didn’t even know why he was there. Then he wanted to take a picture of me and my brother and sister with some brownies I had just baked. You know, BROWNIES GET COLD WAITING FOR DAD. I was so furious at being manipulated that I vowed never again to have anything to do with newspapers.”

She also gave up on the church. “One of the condolence letters,” she recalls, “said that, because Dad’s body had been the least damaged in the crash, it was proof that, God looks after his own! Somehow I didn’t think so. His death left me with a terrible emptiness, a hollow blackness.”

Just when things looked like they couldn’t get any worse, she learned that no air force pension would be forthcoming, only two weeks’ pay and a couple of thousand dollars of insurance, and Children’s Aid began coming around the house. She was determined, however, not to inflict one more move on her brother and sister and managed to keep them all together in their home for a year until she graduated from high school. At that point her father’s brother took charge of the young ones, and she bolted, lying that her father had always wanted her to go to university. Her uncle allowed her to go to McMaster, her father’s alma mater and a good Baptist college.

“I learned how to smoke and drink and get laid as quickly as possible,” she laughs. “Even though I was acing all my courses, my reputation got so bad that they were thinking of tossing me out. I was one angry, angry, angry person. I didn’t feel liberated. I felt, ‘Fuck you, I hate you all!’ I was only really happy alone reading books in the stacks.”

Desperately poor and adrift, she was saved by her friendship with Bill and Betsy Kilbourn, a young professor and his effervescent wife who, with their fondness for art, learning and loud parties, served as mentors, and by falling in love with Barry Harris, an urbane intellectual who played the piano in a jazz trio and later worked as a CBC television producer. She married him upon graduation. “I was dazzled by his brilliance,” she says. ‘The only thing I didn’t notice was that this guy couldn’t speak until he had had three drinks. I had married a serious, but serious, alcoholic. I mean, he was one of the few people in the history of the CBC who got fired for drinking on the job! He left when Chris was nine months, came back to have Jenny, then went to real rat-shit. The marriage ended when he pushed me down the stairs.”

Barry Harris moved on to Edmonton, and during a Christmas visit to Toronto in 1992 he died in their daughter’s arms coming from the liquor store near Dupont and Spadina. By that time Marjorie had met and married Jack Batten, a law-school graduate from a Forest Hill business family who went on to become a respected author and journalist. She became stepmother to his two children, Brad and Sarah, and launched herself as a freelance writer. It seemed as though her luck had finally turned. She and Jack were blissfully in love; they became everybody’s fun couple; they had humour, smarts, books, music, friends and kids in common; and they looked as cute as elves. But then the wheel of fate began to turn again, and their radically different speeds and habits, the usual tensions of a blended family, the constant money pressures, even the competitive strain between two people toiling in the same vineyard pulled them apart. In 1979, after eleven years of marriage, they separated. Jack, exhausted by Marjorie’s pace and annoyed by her untidiness, fled into the arms of another woman. Marjorie rebounded from one unhappy fling to another.

“A marriage breakup has a definite pattern,” she wrote in a tell-all article for Chatelaine in August 1982. “At first, it has all the qualities of grieving after a death. The emptiness of the days and most especially the nights. The painful agony of self-doubt, of feeling unwanted and abandoned. The weeping in public and private. There were days when I’d go to pieces just walking down a familiar street. I’d become disoriented and lose my sense of direction. I was terrified of losing my mind.”

A year later, however, they began dating again and soon came up with a custom-made solution to all the day-to-day stresses that had undermined their love and friendship: the marriage was revived under separate roofs, his and hers. “Married But Living Apart,” as the Chatelaine article was called, was an unusual enough variation on the popular theme Whither Marriage in the Seventies? that Marjorie and Jack were invited to discuss it on radio and television. But that, as it turned out, wasn’t the end of the story.

In 1987, in yet another creative twist, for reasons of both love and money, Marjorie talked Jack into moving back into their old house on Albany Avenue, where he took over the upstairs apartment that had been fixed up and rented out after their separation and she retained the ground floor, basement and garden. “I’m helping to pay for the house again,” he grumbled, but the arrangement has proved remarkably stable. While they live and work in their own quarters, they get together most evenings for drinks and dinner, take working vacations in the south of France each year, and clearly adore one another. As for the garden, she works it and he admires it.

“We both need the solitude,” Jack says in his slow, droll way, “but the evenings are great. She entertains me with the 9,000 things she’s done during the day, and I play the role of the listener. It knocks me out how she made herself, first into such a good writer, then into this gardening guru. She never flags, and she has extremely high standards against which she measures all of us, especially herself. The only bad meal she ever made was sometime around 1974 when she burnt the chili. I made the mistake of mentioning it a little while ago, and she’s still saying, ‘So, you don’t like my cooking!”

In light of this almost Dickensian story of orphans, alcoholics and marital turmoil, including two successful but harrowing operations for cancer, it would be easy to explain the work Marjorie Harris puts into both her garden and her career in negative terms: as a flight from reality, a fear of poverty, a form of self-indulgence, a kind of duty, a craving for affection, a yearning for attention or a sublimation of anger. In positive terms, which is how she views it, her garden is “a sanctuary from the forces of darkness, within and without,” where beauty, creativity, mothering, sexuality, nature, spirituality and her terrific energy get focused into a contemplative practice.

The truth is, while she gave up on the institutional church long ago, she never gave up on her faith in God. She’s always said her prayers at night and regularly needs a hit of choral music. Examining the makeup of a plant or thinking about the big bang theory only reinforced her certainty in God’s existence. But she had lost her way to the peace, understanding and nurturing that come with that certainty until her epiphany that snowy morning. “Since I first started gardening,” she wrote in her most personal book, The Healing Garden, “I have been aware how much this has influenced the rest of my life. I went from being a nervous, driven person to someone who could sit and meditate; from being restless and depressed to becoming strong and useful in my surroundings.”

“One of the things I lost as I grew up,” she explains, “was that incredibly well-defined sense of being comfortable in my own skin when alone. I was never lonely. I didn’t become terrified of being alone until my parents died and I was in university. Then I became this dopey, dependent person who longed to have dates, go to dances, get married. When I discovered gardening, I retrieved that wonderful part of childhood where the imagination just soars and every day is hugely long. It has forced me to slow down, to step back, to really look at life. It’s unqualified joy. It’s perfect love.”

“My office on the second floor looks onto the garden,” says Jack, “and I can watch her moving around down there unobserved. She radiates contentment. There, I think, but for the fucking willow tree next door, is one happy person. There’s a person who’s found whatever you’re supposed to find.”

So what had she found when she yelled, “I’ve found it!”? Right before her eyes, in her own backyard, she had found her way back to paradise lost, time regained, the Garden of Eden that was Labrador, where she was free and at one with nature before her mother took ill and her father was killed and everything dissolved into impermanence and struggle.

Jack is at work upstairs, the children have turned out to be wonderful people with great partners, the grandchildren are playing hide-and-seek among the flowers, the house is full of books and music, Marjorie Harris is mucking about in the mud in her wellies, the lark is on the wing, the snail is on the thorn, God’s in His heaven, and all’s right with the world once again.

Copyright Ron Graham, 1999