Gardener, teacher, friend, salt of the earth. Born June 12, 1937 Trail, BC. Died suddenly January 14, 2007 in Florida. Aged 69.
Anyone who has read my first book will know Wes, the former head gardener at City Farmer. He is one of the main “characters”. Wes died three years ago today. His wife Barb asked me to speak at his memorial – “ the most beautiful celebration of life I have ever attended. After hearing what people had to say about Wes, the pastor said that he was struck by how consistent he had been in all areas of his life. That is true. And that consistency is something to which I aspire. I post my words from the memorial now in honour of the third anniversary of his passing and with much love flowing to his family. I still miss him so much.
I worked with Wes Barrett for 10 years at the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden. He taught me pretty well everything I know about composting and gardening. Although as one friend pointed out, my gardening skills are nothing to boast about. Wes taught many city farmers who came through the garden over the decade he was there. He was in fact a French teacher by trade, but his brand of teaching transcended the classroom. He had infinite patience, an easy manner and was very quick to laugh. When Wes laughed, his whole body would laugh and he would often slap his knee. We came to rate jokes and tales around the garden by whether or not they were “knee slappers”.
Wes was a wonderful gardener – “ a consummate food gardener. He could show you how to harvest amaranth seeds or how to get more flavour from a tomato plant by tucking a little comfrey into the planting hole. He loved a garden that you could touch and feel – “ a garden that brushed up against you when you walked through it. Every visitor was welcomed and no one was ever treated like an interruption. Wes took his time.
Fortunately, he was able to help those of us who were always in a hurry to slow down and smell the lavender. In the mornings, he’d insist we walk through the garden together. On those walks I learned to notice things, like when the raspberry leaves were off in colour or when a clematis needed pruning or if some good neighbour had dropped off a load of smelly compost. Smelly compost didn’t bother Wes. He routinely and cheerfully composted rotten, oozing food waste that would make any other mortal heave their granola.
And speaking of bad smells. Wes tended to well, pass wind frequently. He was known to toot his way around the garden and sometimes a conversation with a visitor could be unexpectedly punctuated. So when Wes retired we had Davide Pan, an artist friend of ours, create a little metal sculpture likeness that proclaimed him as our “Gardener Emeritoots”.
The most famous Wes story happened when David Tarrant of the Canadian Gardener television show came to the garden to film a segment on composting. As they peered into one of the wood and wire compost bins, David said to Wes, “So I notice that you have carpet on top of your compost here. Is that to keep in heat and moisture?”
Ingenuously Wes replied, “Oh yes, I always cover my piles.”
The entire crew collapsed in hysterics, but David, ever the pro, never even cracked a smile. So Wes became the gardener who always covered his piles. One year for Christmas we gave him a pair of jeans with a small patch of the now famous green shag carpet sewn onto the bum.
Wes’ family was part of the garden family too. His wife Barb was always ready to lend a hand – “ whether it was to help with a garden extravaganza or build a rock wall. His daughters were there too, Cathy worked with us for a time and Debbie and Jen often popped by for a visit.
Wes helped to set a lovely rhythm to our life at the garden. We did crosswords on rainy spring afternoons. Harvested lush greens and bright squash late summer. Raked leaves in the fall. Made festive hanging baskets at Christmas. Wes was such an integral part of my garden life that when he decided to retire, I really wondered if I could stay on without him. He was the garden for me in so many ways. For all of us. So one of our garden staff made a Wes scarecrow that presided over the garden for many years after he retired.
Wes knew how to take his time all right – “ in fact so much time that it seemed he was always on holidays. When he retired we wrote on his cake, Happy Holidays, Wes! And so it’s really no surprise that he would slip away while on holidays.
At the memorial, Wes’ ashes were held in a beautiful cedar box that he had carved. I couldn’t help wondering if the box had been lined with green shag carpet. Now that would have been a knee slapper. Happy Holidays, Kiddo!