There’s a saying Fay Branigan thinks everyone should know: “Feed your body, nourish your brain and soothe your soul through gardening.”
For the past two years, Branigan has been the owner of what’s officially called Cliffside Country Store and Greenhouse, but is better known as Cliffside Gardens.
Branigan grew up on a farm in northern Alberta, with a strong Yukon family connection. Her late uncle, Dr. Don Branigan, was a long-time mayor of Whitehorse.
She came here in 1991 “just for a change” and never left. After 12 years as co-owner of a grocery-wholsesale business, she tried working for someone else for five years.
“That didn’t work well,” she admits. “I think outside the box too much.”
When the chance to buy the nursery arose, she jumped at the opportunity. Now, she says, she loves coming to work every day.
“It’s just a way of life. People don’t come to work here because it’s a job to them. They just want to come here because they love it,” she says.
“You come here, and the plants are like babies. They just sit there and smile for you. It’s just relaxing, it’s a great vibe.”
But the part Branigan loves best is the customers.
“People come here, and if they’re not happy when they come, they’re happy when they leave,” she says.
“And everybody’s eager to learn. They want to listen. It’s just a great environment to be in.”
Branigan says gardeners excel at sharing their knowledge with others.
“I’ll have a customer asking a question, and there will be somebody standing beside them go, ‘Oh, I did that, and this is what you do,'” she laughs.
“You learn something new every day. It’s really neat.”
Branigan believes interest in gardening is definitely on the rise, with a lot of first-timers coming in to ask how to get started.
“And people are getting away from buying flowering bushes. They want berries. They want something they can pick and eat. I think people are just becoming more health-conscious,” she says.
“It’s not necessarily a cost savings. You do save some money growing it yourself, but if you add your time in, you’re not saving any money. But the food is so much better, and people are realizing that.”
That trend is not confined to Yukon, Branigan says. It’s Canada-wide.
“People are getting away from flowering annuals, and they are turning their yards into massive gardens, and they’re planting all their own vegetables, and that’s where the future’s going.”
With a longer growing season, Yukoners can now grow things they couldn’t before. They’re also looking at new gardening options.
“People are now getting into organic, getting away from chemicals, and just the new ways of growing. It’s amazing.”
Those “new ways” include making more use of available space, even in unlikely places.
One new condominium building in Whitehorse, for instance, has a rooftop garden for its tenants. And Brangan is considering stocking pre-built units that can be attached to an outside wall to create a “living wall”—a concept that’s gaining popularity elsewhere.
Even apartment-dwellers who believe they can’t grow anything are surprised by the variety of suggestions Branigan has for small-scale food production.
“The top one that people are so impressed with is tomatoes in a basket. You don’t need a greenhouse to grow a tomato plant. You can just hang it outside in a sunny location and have tomatoes all summer long. People love that. They’re surprised by it.”
Branigan’s advice to first-time gardeners?
“Start slow, with one or two items. Because if you start slow and you’re successful, then you can expand. You’re not going to be disappointed.”
But start with what?
“I think it should be peas and lettuce. They’re so easy to grow, and so rewarding,” Branigan advises.
“A lot of people do herbs, too. You can put them in your window and just pick from them. But for a summertime vegetable, lettuce is so easy, you can have three crops in a year. Just do it in a bowl and harvest whatever you need,” she suggests.
“The other one is sprouts. A lot of people are getting into sprouting their own seeds, so you have sprouts all year round in the winter months, just in a little container on the counter.
“It’s another easy way to grow, where you’re getting your greens and you don’t have to pay for it.”
Whether it’s a yard full of prize-winning vegetables, or a few containers on an apartment balcony, Branigan says gardening offers something for everyone: from people seeking relief from high-pressure jobs, to parents wanting to serve fresh, wholesome family fare — from seniors, to youngsters wanting to “get out and get muddy” and learn.
“It’s almost like a moving meditation. When you’re working in your garden, and you’re weeding, you can’t help but relax. It relaxes your mind, it relaxes your body, it’s good for your soul.”