Make a mini-greenhouse with Jean and Marguerite
The Knowledge of Our Grandparents
Our elders who have lived among nature their whole lives have more finely tuned intuitions than we do. But since we often cut ties with the elderly, many find themselves alone with a mountain of expertise and experience that they cannot share.
Before it’s too late, BESIDE wants to pass on the knowledge (and the stories) of four Québécois seniors over the age of 80. To do so, our contributor Eugénie Emond introduced us to four of her friends and the projects that keep them busy.
Jean & Marguerite Blais
Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, 95 years old
Of Jean and Marguerite’s eponymous horticultural business on rue des Jardins, there remains only a run-down greenhouse and a sign that reads “Jean Blais, Grower.” Last summer, I bought a dozen zinnia plants there. A few weeks later, my garden was decked out in bright red pompom flowers, which had popped up between the rows of Swiss chard. The year before, it was tomatoes. Jean always knows when to plant them, despite the changing climate. Light comes in from everywhere in their white, traditional Québécois house. Jean and Marguerite guard the fort there, undeterred by their advanced age and the increasingly harsh winters.
I had assumed that this land on the edge of the river in southwestern Québec had been in the Blais family for generations. I had it all wrong: Jean is a rapporté (an “add-on”), a name once applied to outsiders like me. He knew nothing about flowers or vegetables when he bought his land in 1941, during the war. He was 17 years old, working nights in an airplane factory in the north of Montréal. He would fall asleep on his shift and dream of nature and wide-open spaces. Then a friend gave him a gift that would change his life: a farmer’s bible for French Canadians. With this guidebook and his savings in his pocket, he left the city—with no regrets—to settle in Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly. First, Jean planted potatoes that no one wanted in the then self-sustaining village. Next, he sowed varieties that were still relatively uncommon in the countryside: broccoli, leeks, and cauliflower. After much observation and trial and error, he started his own vegetable and horticultural company. In the winter, he would go cut trees in Abitibi to top up his income. Marguerite, a journalist from Montréal, came to join him years later. She had imagined that she could pursue her career remotely and settle in the countryside with her sweetheart. The rudimentary means of communication at the time—they shared a phone line with neighbours—got the better of her work.
This year, for the first time, Jean and Marguerite will not open their greenhouse to the public. Jean is retiring, but he couldn’t help but order plenty of seeds: flowers especially.
How to make a hotbed with an old window
Before the use of greenhouses became widespread in Québec, farmers used hotbeds. These mini-greenhouses allowed for earlier planting and extending the growing season.At the beginning of spring, Jean would install about a hundred of these hotbeds, which he made from old windows. Young vegetable growers with small plots are now taking up this technique again.
1. Build a box 6 by 12 feet (Jean’s suggested dimensions) with thick wood planks.
2. Spread hay and fresh horse manure where the box will be placed.
3. Add soil.
4. Plant your seedlings or small plants.
5. Cover with a double-paned window to be closed at night.
The heat generated by the decomposing manure will help the plants grow and they’ll be stronger for having adjusted early to outdoor conditions.
Eugénie Emond is a freelance journalist and a Master’s student in Gerontology at the University of Sherbrooke. She is the creator of the documentary series En résidence, broadcast by MAtv. She also contributes to several media outlets, including the magazine Nouveau Projet.