A GARDEN OF EDEN (AND EATIN') AT THE FAR END OF NOVA SCOTIA'S ISLE MADAME
BY: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
ou’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the knit-bombed birdhouse.”
These are the directions I get from a local farmer the first time I hear about Pebble and Fern, a fairy-tale-like farm in a remote corner of Little Anse, one of a cluster of causeway-linked islands off the coast of Cape Breton, at the far-eastern end of Nova Scotia. The brightly colored, wool-wrapped birdhouse, hanging from a telephone pole in the middle of the rolling hills and rocky tide pools of this dreamy, faraway landscape is almost as unlikely a sight as Xennie and Llachlan themselves, the two women who moved across Canada from British Columbia to create this lush pocket-sized garden, which has become an unexpected tourist destination for visitors to this scenic but removed part of the Canadian Maritimes.
As I’ve found out in my many visits to the farm, it’s rare to show up and not find Xennie, (whose hair is held back by a knit hairband in the same palette as the birdhouse), ambling about the small terraced garden, picking salad greens, uprooting vegetables, or leading visitors on a tour through the willow-lined garden paths that dodge and weave around patches of profuse summer strawberries, furred and silver-green artichokes, hazy, bristling copses of asparagus, and a seemingly inexhaustible variety of squashes, onions, root vegetables, lettuces, and herbs.
As Xennie walks me through the garden, it seems like each of her hands is perennially leading her in competing directions. As she picks up the corner of a tarp that she’s using to rest a weedy strip of land and develop the sod underneath, her other hand reaches out the other way to point out the thick stands of a robust weed growing everywhere between the plots of produce. “Angelica,” she says. “It’s more tender earlier in the season.” I ask her if I can try a bit of the lime green stem, wondering if it tastes anything like the candied stems I’m picturing. “They’re a little strong, but you can try it,” she says. Her eyes are set in a constant half-blink, and it’s hard to tell if she’s amused by my naïve enthusiasm or merely squinting against the sun. I think it may be a bit of both. I take a bite of a stem, which is fibrous and which tastes almost overwhelmingly like green mango. The taste quickly intensifies, becoming almost unbearably medicinal and bitter. I wait for Xennie to turn around before extracting it quickly from my mouth and tossing it into a nearby bush. Though she’s turned away, I’m fairly confident that she’s aware that I’ve given up on my first taste of wild angelica, she seems so thoroughly attuned to the rhythms and goings-on of the garden.
"You can see the ocean over the dunes that mark the edge of the farm...The foaming black North Atlantic seems all-enveloping from this exposed slip of land."
Little Anse seems like an odd place to put a farm. The land is surrounded by boggy fens that run down to the ocean and are filled with small carnivorous pitcher plants and orchids. Standing on a high point in the garden you can see the ocean over the dunes that mark the edge of the farm, where the summer’s crop of potatoes are growing. The foaming black North Atlantic seems all-enveloping from this exposed slip of land. But the area has a history of farming born of necessity. Until the 1950s, when the first good road was built, the only way to get to Little Anse was by boat. As a result, the majority of houses had small kitchen gardens where they grew onions, potatoes, fava beans, green beans, turnips, carrots, and root vegetables. The seclusion and short growing season also inspired culinary inventions like herbes salées, a local pickle made of onion tops that are salted and fermented in crocks for long storage and for use in fricot, a salt pork and vegetable stew.
But the soil has ended up being good for more than just potatoes and onions. “This is really good soil,” Xennie says, standing up from plucking a strange cartwheeling onion with a top-heavy bulb attached, ludicrously, from its leafy end. “It’s very rocky, sandy…good drainage.” The onions are called Egyptian Walking Onions, so-named because, as they mature, the improbable bulb hanging from the aerial tip droops over onto the soil to start a new plant. When I express bewilderment that she gets such a variety of plants to grow here, Xennie demurs, insisting, “Gardening’s not really complicated, you just have to really love it. The best fertilizer is a gardener’s shadow. You have to be there, looking at the plants and seeing what they need.”
Her own knowledge of plants has grown slowly over the years. She tells me the only gardening book she’s ever really read is John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Gardener. She grew her first garden at fifteen, housed in a white enamel double sink in her home in Saltspring, BC. “I went to the garden store and bought a few Roma tomato plants. There were just two tomato plants and they were like ‘take me home!’ After that I just couldn’t stop!” In the years since, she’s had a number of gardens, including one on a floating dock on the ocean back in BC. “The dock was 30 feet by 6 feet and covered with pots. I was terrified that there would be a storm and it would flip the whole thing over.”
"The best fertilizer is a gardener’s shadow. You have to be there, looking at the plants and seeing what they need.”
Unexpectedly, farming in an environment as famously rugged as coastal Nova Scotia has actually provided some welcome surprises. Because of the proximity to the water there isn’t much snow in the winter. They’re still picking lettuces and leeks at Christmastime, she tells me. The rains, though, are a different matter. Because of the intense maritime winds, when it storms, Xennie says, “it rains from every direction.” The constant breeze does keep insects away, though. I ask about deer and she laughs, saying that every other garden she’s had has had to be covered in protective fishnet. “This is the first garden that isn’t a fortress. Deer are afraid to show their faces around here. There’s a lot of hunters. That wasn’t a problem on Saltspring, where there were a lot of hippies.”
In addition to keeping the deer away, the neighbors have also been supportive of the garden and eager to help as it’s grown. This surprises me, since the isolation of such farflung places often breeds a mistrust of strangers, especially when they come bearing ideas that can seem foreign and strange. Xennie is philosophical about the neighbors’ reception of them. “Some of them have been the nicest people we’ve ever met,” she says, adding with a shrug and a laugh, “others are like ‘you’re…interesting’.” One neighbor, after watching her painstakingly dig up a bed by hand with a shovel, came over and pleaded with her “Please, will you let me help you?” With the help of his excavator, they finished the task together in record time.
Over the course of the last four years, Pebble and Fern has grown into a highpoint for intrepid and curious tourists. A steady stream of visitors keeps the couple busy through the summer, when their days are strictly regimented to keep up with the demand for their greens, vegetables, and the homemade products and crafts they sell at their little farmstand. But success comes with a price. Xennie opines “I don’t want to market the place and spoil it. You have to be curious and interested to find this place. If you have too many people you just end up selling things all day.“ Even now, she says, one of her favorite parts of running the farm is getting to talk to people who visit from all around the world.
At some point in every conversation with Xennie, it becomes inevitable that visitors will wistfully mention how wonderful it would be to move here. I can’t help but punctuate my conversation repeatedly with this musing, like a verbal tic that I’m aware of but won’t do anything to stop. It’s clear that she hears this a lot and her response is rehearsed but persuasive all the same. “I want to convince as many people as possible to move here.” She adds, her arms wide to indicate all the open space, “we can have our own little Cicely, Alaska," referencing the (sadly) fictional setting of the cult '90s dramedy Northern Exposure. “Writers, filmmakers—that’s exactly what this kind of island should be.”
It could happen. More and more urban escapees from nearby towns are returning to the island, and tourism increases every year. Xennie and Llachlan themselves moved out here on a hunch. They were looking for a place that was remote but beautiful and found a listing online for the Second Empire house that sits at the head of the property. They bought it, having only ever seen it online, and moved across the country to the small town of Little Anse. The house had been abandoned for many years and was being sold by the bank for a pittance (less than the cost of a used car, Llachlan jokes). The process of renovation was long and painstaking, with the couple handling the majority of the work themselves.
After four years of labor, though, the house sits handsome and proud, tall among the squat, vinyl-sided saltboxes all around it. The shingles have been painted a deep blue and the back patio is sheltered with small glass houses that protect the nursery, filled with flats of seedlings and potting supplies. At the base of the terraced garden there’s a little area for children to play and learn about gardening. Llachlan, an educator by training, is exuberant about the opportunity for children to learn about plants in a hands-on environment. “People are always telling kids not to touch stuff, but we want them to put their hands in the dirt and to touch the plants over here.” Xennie adds, “It’s neat to see someone say ‘I didn’t know how that grew. Like little kids who say ‘potatoes grow underground? I thought they grew on trees!’ You need to know this stuff—it’s really human. Getting your hands in there and seeing how things really work is important.”
“People are always telling kids not to touch stuff, but we want them to put their hands in the dirt and to touch the plants over here."
As if to illustrate, she stops and pulls a slender stem out of the ground. “Fireweed,” she says. “Pull them up in the spring and they taste like asparagus. And the young leaves taste like spinach.” The plant grows wild all along the boggy edge of the farm, near a vast tangle of squash vines. “They produce an insane amount of squash blossoms,” she says. "I wish you could be here in two weeks. You come out in the morning to collect them before they’ve opened and you wouldn’t believe that squash blossoms could smell so heavenly.” I actually can’t believe it—I’ve eaten my share of squash blossoms and have never noticed even a hint of a fragrance. “They lose their scent once they’re picked,” Xennie explains. Like so many things that are so special about this place, distance mutes their force.
The variety and details of life on this small handkerchief of land are dazzling—from the profusion of plants to the constant witter of birdsong in the air, to the foxes that romp in the tall grasses on the dunes. Walking back through the garden, I admire the little knit and crochet objects installed around the garden, all in a state of scenic decay. Once again, I find myself on the verge of wanting to pack it all up and move here.
“You should do it,” Xennie says. “What’s the worst that could happen?” She smiles. “I mean, just look where we are.”