‘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 harvesting in Main Brook. The Omohundros still return to the peninsula on occasion, revisiting old friends.
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.