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  • Written by Merilyn Simonds
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Growing with My Garden

Written by Merilyn SimondsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Merilyn Simonds


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: March 22, 2011
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-385-67046-3
Published by : Doubleday Canada Doubleday CAN Titles
A New Leaf Cover

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A graceful and sharply observed book of inspiration that uses the garden as its central muse

A New Leaf traces a year of growing seasons at The Leaf, Merilyn Simonds' acreage in eastern Ontario. A lifelong gardener, Simonds works the soil and the soul for wide-ranging revelations about everything from flowers that keep time, to the strange gift of compost, to great gardens of the world, to things lost and found underground.

She is joined on her journey by a host of companions — including her Beloved, who tills by her side; the Rosarian, who tends to both bud and thorn in roses and life; and the Frisarian, who weeds unwelcome visitors to make room for new growth. Intelligent and intimate, irreverent and elegant, A New Leaf offers a cornucopia of enrichment and inspiration for the fertile mind.

From the Hardcover edition.



All winter the garden was like a closed-up resort, rooms echoing and vacant, white fabric draped over the furnishings. Now the sheets have been yanked off—the snow melted that fast—and already the regulars are coming back.

The crows arrive first. They come as a couple, though they don’t stick together. One pokes along the edge of the woods, nosing in the verge, while the other struts across the grass like a maître d’ inspecting the premises. Maybe they take turns, one strutting, one checking out the woods for nesting sites: I don’t pretend to be able to tell them apart. Both are big as ravens, and glossy, their beaks held haughtily in the air.

The vultures aren’t far behind. They skim the canopy, circling our yard, sniffing for the bodies of winter-killed rodents uncovered by the shrinking snow. The bare-skulled birds often land in the trees at the rim of the woods, but never close to the house. “We aren’t that old yet,” my Beloved declares.

Then suddenly, the rest are here. Red-winged blackbirds from the field across the road swarm the feeder on icy mornings and on those days when March sends a sleeting white reminder that winter’s not over yet. Flickers bob under the apple trees, pecking for crumbs in the grass. The goldfinches begin a slow striptease, throwing off their dowdy winter duds for summer bling. But it’s the Canada geese we wait for, the ones that spell spring with lines in the sky. They flock by the thousands to the Farmer’s cornfield across the way, exhausted from their journey north across the lake. All night they honk and chatter as if they can’t wait until morning to share stories of their travels.

For days, sometimes weeks, the geese are the soundtrack to my garden cleanup, a discordant, percussive jazz that goes on into dusk, with themes that recur, cadences that rise and fall as if there might be an intent to it after all. In the foreground, the chickadees and song sparrows, finches and blue jays and cardinals slip into their courting songs, and before long, the phoebe is back, screaming, “Phoebe! Phoebe!” and the wrens are whistling their sweet melodies and the catbird is imitating everybody, even the scrape of the saw as my Beloved prunes the apple trees. Chipmunks scoot along the stone wall, scooping up the dangling seed heads before I cut down last year’s stems and bury them in the compost. Squirrels chase one another in a mating marathon under the drooping dogwood and up the ornamental cherry, leaping to the locust, then to the sugarplum trees, racing pell-mell into lust.

It’s a party out there and I’m not invited. No one is. We’re all crashers on this first day of spring. I lather my wintersoftened hands with Bag Balm, pull on my rose-covered shirt and my new green garden gloves, and step out to join the rave.


Standing with my back to the old split-rail fence that defines the western edge of our property, I can make out four rows of apple trees—not the deliberately stunted specimens that have taken over modern orchards, but big old apples, with trunks too thick to embrace. The limbs start low and spread generously, inviting a shinny up to sit splay-legged over a branch, gazing down on the blossoms and birds. Trees as open-hearted and sheltering as great-aunts.
It was spring when we moved to The Leaf, a parcel of forest and meadow along a stretch of country road in eastern Ontario where squat stone houses declare a fiercely humble intention to stay. We knew no one here—that was part of the appeal. The snow was just retreating from around the stumps of the trees felled by the big ice storm two years earlier. Half a dozen of the old apple trees were cleaved down their centres, branches torn off by the weight of water, exposing heartwood the colour of wounded flesh.
We had a vision of sinking our teeth into midwinter apples, crisp from the cellar. Of toasting each other with cider pressed from culls raked off the grass. And so the day after a mighty flock of Bohemian waxwings stripped the last of the thawing, fermenting fruit from the limbs, we set about restoring what remained of the orchard.
My Beloved and I assembled ladders, chainsaws, pruning shears of various sizes and enlisted the help of our friends, the Carpenter and the Garden Guru, who had done this before.
“A bird should be able to fly freely through the tree when we’re done,” they said.
We started with the apple tree closest to the house, the one I could see from the kitchen window. The Garden Guru walked around it slowly, eyeing it like a piece of marble she planned to chisel. My Beloved and the Carpenter positioned the ladders and revved the chainsaws.
“That one,” she said, and the Carpenter squinted to find an outside bud, then trimmed the limb close, so the next branch would grow outward instead of toward the trunk.
Bring the height down, open the centre to the light, balance the spread of limbs, she recited as she circled the tree. Before she called out each cut, I tried to guess which branch she’d choose, and why. Wrong. Wrong. And then, suddenly, I got it right.
We did four trees that afternoon, carrying armloads of pruned branches into the house, where they burst into blossom by the fireplace, a foretaste of true spring. My Beloved and I pruned three more trees on our own, uncertain in our cuts, anxious not to remove more than the 25 percent per year the trees could withstand without going into an arboreal version of cardiac arrest.
It wasn’t until early May that we realized the extent of the original orchard at The Leaf. Only sixteen trees remained, but if we followed one burst of white bloom to the next, as if in a game of connect-the-dots, we could see where rows of apples had once run the entire width of the property, interrupted only by the house. The row closest to the road bore fruit early in August; the third produced later that month. The fourth, all but lost in the fringe of sumac and saplings at the edge of the woods, were Russets, we could tell by the brown mottled skin. The trees in the second row, the ones I could see from the kitchen, produced apples that we swore were McIntosh.
And they were. One summer afternoon in our third year at The Leaf, an elderly couple stopped their car at our mailbox. There’s little traffic on this road except for the school bus, the milk truck, the snow plow, and an occasional commuter or lost tourist. We weren’t used to company.
“I’m Apple Annie,” the woman said. She was born in our house, seventy years before. Her father planted the orchard in 1923, ninety trees set in four neat rows.
“Jonathan, McIntosh, Scarlet Pippin, Russet,” she said, naming the rows. Her parents stored the apples in barrels and shipped them off to local hotels and grocery stores. As a girl, she sat by the road and sold them to passersby. “That’s how I got my nickname,” she laughed. When she grew up, she went to university to become a teacher, then lived at home, riding her pony through the woods to a one-room schoolhouse up on Washburn Road.
I ran to the stone wall to retrieve a horseshoe my Beloved had unearthed as he dug another garden, and handed it to her.
“In the fall,” she said, turning the shoe upright to hold in the luck, “the whole place smelled of apples.”
It’s the same in the summer, when the young, green fruit give off a spicy scent that fills the West Yard. Sometimes, my Beloved and I position a small table under an arching apple branch and linger there after our lunch, books in hand.
Once, the Farmer who works all the land that we can see from The Leaf stopped his tractor beyond the hedge that separates our yard from the road. The afternoon was wearing on, the sun already sliding down the sky, and we were still sitting with our books, stirring briefly whenever the hay wagons passed, feeling vaguely guilty in our indolence. I couldn’t help but recall what our nearest neighbours, the Rosarian and the Humanist, had told us—that the Farmer had once interrupted their long afternoon of reading to climb down off his tractor and ask, “What are you doing anyway, sitting there all this time?”
Now the Farmer was striding through a break in our hedge. Small and wiry, he still works dawn to dusk beside his sons, though he is well over eighty. “Never tasted a drop of alcohol,” he said the day he stopped to welcome us to The Leaf. When we offered him a cup of tea, he added: “Never took a hot drink, neither.”
We could see his lips moving as he strode across the grass, and we expected the worst. Then we heard him, a clear, true tenor, Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me . . .
“I’ve been watching you all afternoon, and singing this song. I just wanted to thank you for that,” he said, beaming broadly. Then he turned and left.
Every March since, we pull out the chainsaw, the pole pruner, and the secateurs and give the old trees a trim. As I haul away the last armload of this year’s trimmings, a robin glides through the branches with outstretched wings. I think of Apple Annie and her father, who set out the tender scions; of our friends, who made the first cuts; of the Rosarian and the Humanist, and the Farmer who sang to us. We bought this place with notions of solitude, but already, there is a gathering on the lawn under the old apple tree, and I feel at home.

From the Hardcover edition.
Merilyn Simonds|Author Desktop

About Merilyn Simonds

Merilyn Simonds - A New Leaf
Merilyn Simonds was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and spent her childhood in Brazil. Her books include The Holding (2004), the internationally acclaimed short story collection The Lion in the Room Next Door (1999), and The Convict Lover (non-fiction, 1996), which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Arthur Ellis Award, and won the TORGI Award. The Convict Lover premiered as a stage play at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille in 1998.

Simonds has worked as a freelance writer and a magazine editor, has taught courses in literary non-fiction, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges and universities in the U. S. and Canada. She has won several national awards for her magazine writing.

She lives outside Kingston, Ontario, with her husband, writer and translator Wayne Grady.

Author Q&A

When our house at The Leaf was built in 1824, only Old Country dukes and earls had lawns. Settlers had dooryards planted with peas and cabbages, maybe a swath of greenery beyond the stoop that was scythed now and then or nibbled by the family sheep to keep the wilderness from creeping too close. The scythed area was never very big. What with felling trees and planting crops and managing the livestock, who had the time?
When we arrived at The Leaf, the lawn stretched grandly in all directions, covering two acres at least.
"The people who lived here must have been in love with their lawn mower," I said.
"Or with Capability Brown," added my Beloved.
Capability Brown was a landscape architect in Britain in the 1700s, a man some call England's greatest gardener. He was only seventeen when the word lawn was coined for a mowed grassy plot, so I can't attribute it to him, but he, more than anyone, is responsible for our North American obsession with green-plush yards. It was Brown who gave us a taste for what he called "the pleasing  prospect," that sweep of undulating grass that leads the eye to a specimen tree, an arrangement of shrubs, a fountain, the front door of a house.
A famous portrait of Brown shows him cocking his head at the viewer, a glint in his eye and a barely suppressed grin on his lips, as if he knows the havoc he is about to wreak, as if he can already hear the arguments between countless husbands and wives. More gardens! No - more grass!
Still, I find it hard not to like a guy who describes a landscape in terms of grammar.
"Now there," he'd say, pointing a finger, "I make a comma, and there, where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject."
I share Brown's affection for punctuation, but not for the gardenless form of landscape design that is reflected in every contemporary suburban plot. Grass stretches around these houses like a mat around a painting, drawing attention to the prized human construction at the centre. In Brown's horticultural vision, borders of flowers, trees, and shrubbery served the same function as plaster roses on a fancy picture frame. At The Leaf, the mat inside the frame was enormous: mowing the grass was a ten-hour trial.
"It's too much!" we both exclaimed, exhausted.
We stopped mowing the meadow and cut paths through it instead. Every year I dug up sod to plant shrubs and flowers and, yes, ornamental grasses. In the third year, the Garden Guru introduced me to lasagna garden-making - twelve sheets of newspaper, topped with a layer of mulch. The following year - presto- soil, which meant I could eat up the lawn even faster.
Within five years, we'd cut the mowing time in half. Then we bought a riding lawn tractor with a wide cutting blade, and "cutting the grass" shrank to an ordeal of little more than three hours. We mow the lawn ten times a year. (I've kept track. Wet year, dry year; early spring, late fall: it's always ten mows.) That means thirty hours on a noisy, spewing machine whose only saving grace is that it blows the clippings into bags so I can use them as mulch.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Simonds writes of her soul-feeding experiences across an entire gardening year, from clean-up through harvest. It doesn’t take long for the book’s hard, black lines of type to  disappear, and for the reader to be spellbound, completely submerged in Simonds’ special world..... There are no rigidly straight lines in her garden, but rather glorious clouds of shape and colour. We see this because Simonds has mastered the art of seeing what she is looking at, and because she has the skill with words to share that vision with us.....”
The Globe and Mail

"Vibrant, exuberant."
—More Magazine

“A delightful tour of the garden..... The freshness of Simonds’ writing, the good humour and quiet authority it conveys, make something new of it all.”
— The Gazette (Montreal)

“Two green thumbs up for Merilyn Simonds. This shining book, sparked by her garden blogs on everything from bugs to peas to survivor elms, evolves as a gardener does, from hope to realism and back to hope. Simonds reminds us that our contact with each garden bed (she has twenty-six, one for each letter of the alphabet!) lets us touch yet another aspect of our selves. A New Leaf is a by-your-bedside companion, composed to seed our dreams.” 
— Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden
“Like stories passed friend to friend, these wise, funny, colourful pieces enrich our understanding of plants, landscapes and life. A book to grow by, and share.” 
— Sarah Harmer
“I certify Merilyn Simonds the Saint of Frugal Gardening, for her amazing and helpful skills with plants, other edibles, and people too.” 
— from The Year of the Flood, God’s Gardener Scroll, awarded by Margaret Atwood
“A wonderful read.... Merilyn shows us how she, and all who put their hands in the soil, grow with our gardens.” 
— Ed Lawrence, horticultural specialist and gardening expert on CBC Radio’s Ontario Today

“Delightful, funny, wise…. In the tradition of the best gardening books, Merilyn Simonds’ A New Leaf inspires both experienced gardeners and those just beginning.” 
— Beth Powning, author of The Sea Captain’s Wife

From the Hardcover edition.

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