By Rhea Hamilton-Seeger
It was with great surprise and sadness that I learned of the death of a wonderful gardener this past spring. He has been on my mind all summer and even more so when I am in the Blyth Garden.
I first met Dan McInnes when I was working at The Blyth Standard newspaper. I had been working on a number of local features when it was suggested that Dan would be a good man to talk to. Ask him about potatoes!
Dan was a very special man. Kind, patient and eager to share gardening stories. He came from a long line of farming families in Kinloss Township. He was the son of Robert Ayton McInnes and his wife Marie Sherwood, and Dan was the youngest of three children. Dan and his wife Annie Dixon of Durham were married in 1949 and were able to buy a farm in Kinloss and carried on with the farming life. Annie taught in several local schools and they raised their three children on the farm. It was common to have a vegetable garden then and when Dan and Annie moved to Blyth in the early 1970s they set up a new garden there. Dan was a good gardener and the proof was in the bounty that came from his garden. Not only was the family fed well but a lot of the neighbours too.
Dan loved to try new seed varieties and seed potatoes were no exception. Dan could boast that he grew more than 25 different kinds of potatoes. He was probably one of the first around Blyth to grow blue potatoes. He ordered his seeds from a number of places and had good results with most.
He was a valued member of the Blyth Horticultural Society and grew some of the brightest and most fragrant blooms. By starting seeds he could try new varieties and share and trade with others.
The year I met Dan he was growing paper husk ground cherries. I knew them as Cape gooseberries. They were unusual back then and they have kept some of their allure, as they are still not widely grown. They are more commonly called ground cherries (physalis peruviana) and are closely related to the brilliant orange Chinese lantern and more distantly related to members of the nightshade family, which includes tomato, eggplant and potato. They are small, approximately one to two centimetres in diameter and have a wonderful papery husk around them; same shape as the Chinese lanterns only smaller. It’s hard to describe their flavour but they are sweet with a slightly tart back taste. You know how when we describe some unusual meat the comparison comes back to chicken. Well the same goes with this fruit. The flavour has been compared to the common flavours of pineapple, strawberries or citrus fruits with an earthy undertone. Often it is just a matter of what stage the fruit is picked at. We have blackberries that can be sour and make you pucker. But if you wait a day and pick the same berry the flavour is so much sweeter. Fruit looks the same but just a day or more on the branch makes all the difference in the world.
I met up with Dan again this spring at Huronview and we had a lovely chat about gardens. I recalled his garden and with sadness he told me about the dismantling of his. As I work away in my own garden I know what will happen if I am not here to keep ground covers at bay, some perennials pared back, and interlopers nipped in the bud. It would be a mess. Dan was spared the view of his garden deteriorating. The new owners were not of the same mind and his shrubs, roses, and perennials were dug out and composted. Some of his plant varieties would not be available now. Plant breeders move on with new and better while some gardeners nurture the old tried and true.
We talked about the challenges with different vegetables and inevitably we talked about the Blyth Garden. His son Robert had taken him up to see the grand design. My next visit included my seed catalogues as I compared notes with him on varieties to select and the best practices to get the best yield. We were going to flavour test some of the carrots when they were harvested later this summer. It was not to be.
Dan died May 29, 2016. I wanted to write about him as I think we need more in some of our obituaries that appear in the community newspaper. We are more than a birth and death date and we do more than have children, although that is another challenge in itself. We contribute and hopefully make our community a better place to live. Gardeners share a special spot in my heart. They are generous, giving and have great ideas on how to grow anything better. And we need more of them in our communities.
On a happier note about improving our community, the Town of Goderich and Trees Canada along with TD Friends of the Environment Foundation sponsored the planting of over 500 trees in the Maitland Woods, Goderich. There are wonderful walking trails through it and trees of interest have been labeled to educate many of us about the wonderful canopy above.
The devastation of the Emerald Ash Borer was very evident and the loss of so much forest canopy changes the wood lot. With increased light much of the understory of assorted cedar, dogwood, and woody shrubs was taking off.
It was a poor weather day and not all may have enjoyed the fruit of our labours but we helped create a better place for our kids and grandkids. ◊
Rhea Hamilton-Seeger and her husband live near Auburn. She is a skilled cook and gardener.