HGTV’s CARSON ARTHUR’S COUNTY GARDENS

By Janet Davies
Photos courtesy of Johnny C. Y. Lam 

Carson Arthur is partial to wild foraging on his Wilson Road property in Prince Edward County, as well as growing wildflowers and vegetables and keeping bees. Sound idyllic? Carson tells us about being not at all retired in The County.

“I work in TV. I’m a garden guy on HGTV, I do outdoor makeovers. I usually film June to late October, so what I had been doing in the winters in Toronto to make some money was buying a house to renovate and resell. But when the market went crazy that wasn’t working any more. My partner and I decided to do one more flip and then get out of the city, kind of retire to the country. Vincent and Christophe of Maison de Poivre invited us to try out the B&B they had at that time,  and when we arrived in The County that first time I thought ‘Wow. This is something special. This is different.’ This was before the mass explosion of interest, but I had heard about The County. I said ‘We should be here. Forget that one last house reno, let’s go straight to retirement!’ I know that sounds crazy, I’m in my forties, but this really felt like it could be our “forever home”. We drove around and met people like Richard Karlo who loved connecting people and he showed us around some more. We only really looked at two houses, one in Hillier and this one. I said, ‘We’re done. It’s this one.’ My mother-in-law came to see it and loved it and moved in with us, then bought her own place in Wellington on the Lake. So we moved here en masse.”

“Before we came here my impression was The County would be like what Sonoma is to Napa, like a rougher version of Niagara. I was wrong. We did not expect the charm and the beauty. I didn’t expect the beaches and the communities. It is very different to Niagara’s story. We discovered the wineries and the breweries – hard to imagine there were only two breweries back then – and made a list of all the things we’d be giving up if we moved here. Well, we started with sushi. And we ended at sushi. That was it! Then Picton got a sushi restaurant! We really felt we weren’t giving up anything that we would miss. We had to keep a condo in the city because I have to go back there to work sometimes but I’m here 85% of my time. When I open my new garden centre I’ll be here full force.”

CARSON & HGTV

“I’ve been involved with a show called Home to Win. The premise is we buy a house, all the HGTV stars team up to renovate it and then we give it to somebody. Here you go, here’s a house! I have to work where that house is located, but for two years it’s been about half an hour from here which has been great. But I’m also a spokesperson for some companies and for charities, so I travel a lot. I’ve done a lot with Save the Children internationally and more locally with Fresh for All – both fantastic and both around the idea of how to grow your own food. In the next five to ten years food prices are going up and climate change and population growth will affect us all. Food sources and sustainability are going to be even more important. That’s another great reason for me to be here. I couldn’t have all this space in Toronto. I can’t have chickens there!”

CHOOSING THE COUNTY

“But seriously, we looked at places from Vancouver to Halifax – even Winnipeg, which has some beautiful parts, and Saskatoon which is the garden city of Saskatchewan. But there’s something special in The County. You’ve probably heard it before, I know, I keep hearing it, but it truly felt like home from the moment we came over the bridge. People come to visit us now, we’ve got a lot of rooms, and if they come in the back way, from the 401, they say “This is it?!” because they’ve hurried straight here and didn’t see the little towns and all the scenery. They just saw farmland. When they slow down and spread out a bit they see the rest, they love it.”

“Our property was custom built by the couple we bought it from and it fit me like a glove. But they hadn’t done much outside. There was a lot of lawn. I’m not a fan of lawns. I’m slowly taking over the lawn and turning it into wild flower garden for our honey bees. We also created a 25-bed raised vegetable garden and a chicken coop. My aim is to make it sustainable. I come back to that concept because that’s my focus on TV, in the media and in a book I’m writing right now. The book is about The ability to grow our own food.

THE BOOK

“One of the executives at Random House publishing wanted to do a gardening book. He asked me and I told him I hate gardening books! They all seem to be written for one demographic. They don’t speak to a younger market. Oh I’ve read them for education and there are several people’s books I like – but I don’t love them. He asked “what books I did love?” and I told him cookbooks. He said “Okay, how do you go from growing a tomato to making tomato sauce?” I told him and he said “Perfect! Write about that. Show people how to grow it and what to do with it. Target the millennials.”  I just laughed and said ‘So basically I’ll write How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse by Growing Vegetables in Your Backyard.’ And he said YES. That was my working title, but now I’ve tweaked it to Food to Survive On. Anybody can grow stuff. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. But you must understand the fundamentals, so I’m trying to get it across in a way that works for a new generation. I hear young people say they want to learn to grow things because they want to be able to teach their kids. And that’s good. I talk about my recipes and the basics of pickling and canning.  Its beginner stuff but it can work for people in the city. You can grow produce in really small spaces if you have the ‘know how’ and a little creativity. Lettuce can grow in a couple of inches of soil. People grow lettuce in eaves troughs, but you have to know what you’re doing.

CARSON’S CLEVER PLAN

“The idea came about because of a friend Stacey Hubb’s who owns a company called Edible Antiques. She used to work with Vicki Emlaw and the two of them got into the heirloom preservation thing. When I met her she was starting her business and wanted to sell little seed packets. I invested. I thought it would be great to have a garden centre that sold seeds and plants year round. My property is already zoned properly. I’m surrounded by wineries. Tourists are already close to my place. Then it morphed into another idea of preparing instant gardens for people. It would be like going to a salad bar and choosing this lettuce and those tomatoes and whatever – but with plants! We’d have the plants ready for you to do your own planter – or give us your shopping list and we’ll plant it for you. Off you go. Go visit the wineries and we’ll get it ready for when you come back. It’s about being instant, making it easy, but it’s also about the love of gardening – and I’m going for it. I want a U.K. style garden centre, versus what we usually see here that is mostly landscape plants. I want fun things that make me happy. I’m doing it because I love to do it. No other reason.”

A WORD ABOUT WILDFLOWERS

“I grow wildflowers for the seeds, but my other half refuses to have a whole wildflower garden, because there are moments when it looks totally fantastic but other times when it doesn’t. You have to leave them after they’ve bloomed to get seed heads, but they go all dry and crunchy. Last year during the drought it was pretty bad looking. There is a balance between the aesthetic and the functional side of things. The brutal truth? I love wildflowers, but a wildflower garden does nothing for your property value, in fact, it lowers it. So unless you’ve got a LOT of space or are willing to make a long term commitment, which is what we’re doing here, I don’t recommend it.”

CHICKEN AND VEG

“We got chickens with a view to eating them, but that didn’t last long. My mother in law started naming them and they were so damned cute and we realized we’re not eating these guys. So for now the chickens are for eggs. I have planted just under a dozen fruit trees, pears and plums and apples and this is my second year with honey bees. No joke, since I’ve been taking honey in my coffee, I’ve had no colds, no flues, my allergies are reduced. Unpasteurized honey. I read a lot about it and now I’m a believer. We grow our vegetables for seed production – 85 varieties of tomatoes, 40 kinds of beans. With Stacey’s Edible Antiques and my own little garden centre we’ll have about 1,500 varieties of vegetables and edible plant material.”

THE GARDEN CENTRE

“We had a schedule to open the garden centre in 2018 but my show, Home to Win, got renewed so I couldn’t swing it. I want to actually be there in my garden centre. I’ll have staff that I will trust and love I’m sure, but my name will be on the door and I think people will want to see me. So it’s not going to be 2018. We’re engaged now, and we’re going to get married right here in this building. That will buy me time! But there’s no hurry. We’re looking at opening in Spring 2019, which is when the book comes out. Everything happens for a reason. This is a long term project, it’s like my retirement project. There I go again! I’m so glad I’m here. The community has been fantastic. I’m blown away by the support in the County and the Quinte region. CJBQ asked me to host a radio show, and the fans and support for gardening and sustainability has been beyond expectation. I love it.”

 

“What we’re doing will add to the experiences available here, we’re trying to capture the concept of farm to table. People come for wineries and breweries and the chefs who are so good and they want to take part of the experience home with them. I’m adding one more layer to that farm to table story. I won’t be growing produce for chefs, I’m growing seeds and plant material. And there is something special about a chef who wants to grow their own food. A chef who wants Paris Market Carrots, an heirloom variety, and has the drive to get on and grow them, that contributes an extra level to our local food diversity. It’s the kind of thing that makes us unique, that makes The County unique.”

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