Mystery of Broken Pottery in a Vegetable Garden

Reader Contribution by Rachel Conlin
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Although I am partially in the shade, it is still hot enough that my skin is clammy and my clothing damp. I dig the hoe into the ground again, chopping at the saplings and weeds that are growing up amongst my newly sprouted pumpkin plants. This ground has not been worked in at least fifty years, perhaps longer. Although my husband has cleared it, persistent new growth emerges from the root system of long overgrown trees.

Something in the ground I have dug catches my eye. It is another piece of broken china. This one is white with a tiny, delicate floral pattern. I put down the hoe and pick up the china. The pattern is in a soft, almost romantic green colour. Immediately, I am intrigued with thoughts of Ireland.  Hands sore with calluses, hot and tired with the relentless work of roughing out a garden in overgrown bush, this new discovery is coaxing me to sit and daydream for a moment. At the edge of the garden is a small waterfall, fifteen feet from where I stand. The cascading water calls to me. With hoe laid down and broken piece of china in my sore hand, I sit on a rock by the waterfall and begin to be swept away by the intoxication of the moment.

My husband was born in this area and I moved here as a child, both of us growing up here. We have deep roots to this area and knew this farm and the family that lived here. The very same original family that received this land in 1871 as a land grant from Queen Victoria. Back then settlers were encouraged to come from the old country — England, Scotland & Ireland — to open up the Canadian wilderness in this part of Ontario. If they could clear a patch of land, build a log dwelling and scrape up a subsistent living in the first year, the Queen provided the new settler with 100-acre parcel of land, known as a land grant, usually free of charge, or for a nominal fee. The land we are on remained in the same family all these years until we were fortunate enough to purchase the almost 300-acre parcel in 2005.

Many of the first gardens had been forgotten over the years, as times changed, family members began to work off the farm, and age took its toll on the remaining members of the family. Since moving here, we revitalized the garden right beside the farm house. We then moved on to other areas of the property where we suspected gardens may have been by the terrain, all the while looking for the best garden area. One of these was the potato patch by the first log home on the property, known to us as the “old farm.” We soon discovered shards of china and pottery throughout this garden area. Captivated by the assortment and beauty of the pieces we would find, it would always give us a reason to pause and wonder.

Today, I am working on a garden close to the 1890s farmhouse that we now live in. It is a new area for us to try and by its growth we knew it had been cleared many, many years ago for either a garden or livestock. A small creek runs directly behind the farmhouse and tumbles over the limestone into an enchanted waterfall right beside where I have been turning up the soil. Tim, my husband, cleared the area of its overgrown brush, tilled up the soil and spread our sheep’s natural manure throughout. He then planted his potatoes. I worked up the bottom half of the area planting my favourite crop, pumpkins. It didn’t take long to realize how useful the waterfall is for watering this garden. Along the cedar rail fence we discovered a much neglected damson tree and a tame gooseberry bush. We unearthed a very old cultivator blade and then came the china.  The china and pottery was a telltale sign that a garden did exist here.

Fascinated by these mysterious pieces of the past, I of course wondered why they were put in the garden. After much searching I discovered many people were intrigued by also finding broken bits of china in very old gardens throughout the UK, Australia, US and Canada…perhaps other places. There were varied reasons for this, many seemingly frivolous. But after much thought, I speculated there had to be a very good reason. I believe the Victorians put their broken china and pottery in the garden, not just as a way to dispose of the ruined item, but to also amend the soil in the process. Bone china and many ceramics are comprised of animal bone ash. Bone ash contains nitrogen and phosphorus, excellent natural fertilizers. It made perfect sense to me and these gardens seem to really flourish.

I am satisfied I have found an answer to the mystery of the broken china, but it is still captivating each time I find a piece. Did it come from the old country? Did the piece hold a special meaning? Was someone heart broken when it was shattered? I look fondly at the green floral piece in my hand, it is beautiful. Then I place it back in the soil where I found it and smile; this will be the best garden.

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