‘It seemed like the wild west to us’

New York an­thro­pol­o­gist rem­i­nisces on his fas­ci­na­tion with North­ern Penin­sula gar­den­ing


Built and scat­tered along the scenic coast­line drive of the North­ern Penin­sula, road­side gar­dens are a sta­ple of High­way 430 and its off-roads.

With a land­scape of bar­ren coast­lines and rocky lime­stone, the built-up top­soil from past high­way con­struc­tions pro­vided a con­ve­nience for gar­den ven­tures of the penin­sula.

John Omo­hun­dro is a re­tired an­thro­pol­o­gist based in New York. Omo­hun­dro and his wife Su­san spent years liv­ing and work­ing along the North­ern Penin­sula. While the pair of an­thro­pol­o­gists stud­ied New­found­land’s cul­tural trades of berry pick­ing, house build­ing and hunt­ing, they were par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated with the penin­sula’s unique gar­den­ing styles.

“We felt at home in the North­ern Penin­sula,” said Omo­hun­dro. “It seemed like the wild west to us.”

The cou­ple first came to the North­ern Penin­sula as tourists in 1979, but their in­fat­u­a­tion with the area soon be­came a long-term aca­demic study that lasted 25 years.

“The gar­den­ing was the first thing that caught our at­ten­tion,” said Omo­hun­dro. “We wanted to look into how New­found­lan­ders got along and sur­vived on the North­ern Penin­sula, and gar­den­ing seemed to be a ma­jor as­pect of that.”

Due to homes and set­tle­ments form­ing so close to coast­lines, Omo­hun­dro says the lo­cal soil was of­ten ter­ri­ble for grow­ing veg­eta­bles. Even be­fore the high­ways brought plen­ti­ful top­soil, the con­cept of gar­den­ing far from home was a sta­ple of penin­sula com­mu­ni­ties.

“Lo­cals were al­ways search­ing for good soil out­side of the com­mu­nity,” he noted. “So when those Cater­pil­lar trac­tors came and turned up soil for the high­ways, peo­ple jumped on it.”

As a soft-filled bare ground with no weeds, the earth that re­sulted from the high­way for­ma­tions was ideal for grow­ing sta­ple New­found­land veg­eta­bles like pota­toes, cab­bage and turnip. Be­fore this, Omo­hun­dro says a com­mon spot for plant­ing and gar­den­ing were nearby is­lands.

Omo­hun­dro and his wife were also fas­ci­nated by the tight knit na­ture of ru­ral New­found­land, such as the de­vel­op­ment of may­ors and coun­cils in com­munes of only a cou­ple hun­dred peo­ple. He be­lieves this played a sig­nif­i­cant role in the form­ing of road­side gar­dens.

“The at­ti­tude was no­body owned the grounds (along the high­way), but on the other hand, once I planted my pota­toes there, it was un­der­stood that other gar­den­ers wouldn’t mess with it,” Omo­hun­dro said. “Most of the time, peo­ple trav­el­ling on th­ese roads are known to ev­ery­body else. It seems to me in this en­vi­ron­ment, if some­one were to be mess around, word would travel fast.

“We al­ways found the vast num­ber of small municipalities quite im­pres­sive.”

An­other in­ter­est­ing as­pect the pair stud­ied was the use of ma­rine re­sources in gar­den­ing.

Kelp wash­ing up on the shores of penin­sula in lit­tle balls served as fer­til­izer for many gar­den­ers. In time, when the gar­dens were trenched, Omo­hun­dro says the throw­ing in of capelin runs was an­other com­mon sight. Through their re­search, th­ese tech­niques ap­peared to yield strong re­sults.

“That stuff re­ally thrilled me,” said Omo­hun­dro. “The sea­weed has all kinds of nu­tri­ents, and the idea of ac­tu­ally throw­ing fresh capelin and let­ting them rot down into the soil is pretty clever.”

Th­ese high­way gar­dens are still in plen­ti­ful promi­nence to­day, and Omo­hun­dro ex­pects th­ese tech­niques are also still in use. He says in New York they can buy some ex­pen­sive and pro­cessed fish meal fer­til­izer lo­cally, but it’s not as ef­fec­tive as the gen­uine ocean re­sources of the North­ern Penin­sula.

One deep ad­mi­ra­tion for the an­thro­pol­o­gists, as ex­em­pli­fied in th­ese gar­dens, is how tra­di­tion sur­vived in New­found­land even through the pro­cesses of mod­ern­iza­tion.

“The gar­den­ing sur­vived quiet well,” he said. “When ma­chin­ery, roads, and elec­tric­ity came in, things changed a bit to ac­com­mo­date new tools, but it cer­tainly didn’t ruin it.

“The gar­den­ing is not just an old-timey tra­di­tion that died out with mod­ern­iza­tion, peo­ple kept at it and made it a part of their new life.”

Although they are both re­tired, John and Su­san Omo­hun­dro still re­turn to the area they ad­mired and stud­ied for many years. Now the trips are not to do re­search, but to visit and keep in con­tact with friends they made over the years, or with the chil­dren of those friends who have passed on.

Their most re­cent visit to the North­ern Penin­sula was in 2013, and they hope to re­turn again in the near fu­ture.

“We both stud­ied an­thro­pol­ogy and started our re­search ca­reers in Asia,” said Omo­hun­dro. “But it’s the far reaches of Canada that struck us as par­adise.”


An­thro­pol­o­gists and hus­band and wife John and Su­san Omo­hun­dro spent 25 years study­ing the North­ern Penin­sula. The gar­den­ing tech­niques of the area were their first fas­ci­na­tion. In this photo, from 1982, John Omo­hun­dro is as­sist­ing in some potato...


On High­way 430, the scenic drive from Deer Lake to St. An­thony, the sight of road­side gar­dens re­mains a stead­fast tra­di­tion of North­ern Penin­sula cul­ture.

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