Laidback Gardener prepares to lay down his tools

·6 min read
Larry Hodgson, one of Quebec’s best known horticultural writers, recently informed his readers that he suffers from a chronic lung disease which has no cure. (Susan Campbell/CBC - image credit)
Larry Hodgson, one of Quebec’s best known horticultural writers, recently informed his readers that he suffers from a chronic lung disease which has no cure. (Susan Campbell/CBC - image credit)

Mention the name Larry Hodgson to an avid gardener in Quebec, and chances are the same image comes to mind: a big fellow with a wide smile and a broad-brimmed khaki hat, standing in a garden, explaining how to make things grow.

Hodgson is one of the best known horticultural writers in the province. He's helped generations of novice gardeners overcome their fears of failure as a pedagogue who's not into perfection.

On a bright July morning, Hodgson is seated at the table in the solarium at the back of his house in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy. Out the window, his midsummer garden is a riot of green, with pops of yellow, purple and white blossoms.

The glint in Hodgson's eye is still there. But he's thinner and moves slowly, his breathing helped by an oxygen tube on a long lead that lets him get around the house.

"My voice isn't what it used to be," says Hodgson, clearing his throat. "That annoys me."

Hodgson has been living with pulmonary fibrosis for six and a half years. The disease erodes the lungs over time and has no cure. At age 62, he was told he had one or two years left.

He beats those odds. But after years of maintaining a normal rhythm, Hodgson is now on oxygen full time.

"I'm still around … that's great," he says. "But I'm getting close to the end. You can really feel it."

France Bouchard
France Bouchard

Hodgson says he accepted his prognosis pretty much from the beginning. Then he got back to writing.

Hodgson has two horticulture blogs: one in English called Laidback Gardener, the other by the same name in French — Jardinier paresseux.

Until June, he had posted every day for the past eight years. He said nothing to his readers about his condition.

That changed when he suddenly became unwell and ended up in hospital.

He laid it out in simple terms. He is sick and he isn't going to get better. His condition has deteriorated, and his doctors say he doesn't have much time left. Blogging daily was no longer possible.

Hodgson says living with the knowledge he's not going to survive isn't as hard as breaking that news to others.

"People get upset," Hodgson says. "They don't know how to talk to people who are dying."

"Neither did I, really," he says with a wry huckle. "It's the first time I've gone through this. And the last."

Laidback Gardener/Facebook
Laidback Gardener/Facebook

A self-taught expert

Hodgson learned to garden as a boy, in his family's backyard in Scarborough, Ont., at the knee of his father, an accomplished gardener.

He studied languages with the idea of teaching, moving to Quebec City for university and taking a job at the Red Cross to pay the bills.

But he gradually returned to his first love. And he got good at it — joining gardening clubs and writing for international plant societies.

In 1984, he decided to quit his job and try his luck making a career out of his horticultural writing.

A series of articles in Quebec City's French daily, Le Soleil, led to a weekly column that lasted four decades.

A pitch to CBC Quebec resulted in a weekly gardening segment on the afternoon show, Breakaway, with then-host Jacquie Czernin, that ran for a dozen years.

The Télé-Mag network came calling, too. His TV show, Dans mon jardin avec Larry Hodgson, airs in spring and summer in Quebec and Ontario.

Over his career, Hodgson has authored 64 books on horticulture. The 65th comes out next spring.

A laidback community

Hodgson had to hustle as a writer, but his approach to horticulture is the less work the better. He was telling people not to pull up their dandelions before it was cool. He doesn't think weeding and watering should be a full-time job.

"Plants want to grow," Hodgson says. "Just let them."

Hodgson's posts on his English-language blog range from the practical (Pinch and Prune for Better Bloom) to the amusing (I Killed My Rosemary: A Tale of True Crime and Confession).

There are hundreds of gorgeous photos of every flower and plant imaginable, with tips on how to make them thrive. He shares every discovery — of a new bulb or a good tip — with excitement.

Hodgson's hallmark has always been sharing what he's learned about gardening with anyone who asks.

People used to walk up to him at the shopping centre with their queries. Some even called his home phone.

Now, on his blog, a lady in Montana asks him to identify a weed that's choking her carrots. A woman from Canberra, Australia, asks for tips about trees to plant.

Those same readers have inundated Hodgson's blogs with messages since he made his illness known.

And it's not just his readers who are celebrating his influence.

Quebec's Fédération des sociétés d'horticulture et d'écologie du Québec honoured Hodgson with a tribute at its annual conference in August in Quebec City. A video featured personalities from the gardening world in Canada and Europe, underlining Hodgson's commitment to demystifying and democratizing horticulture.

"It's very moving," he says of the outpouring of appreciation. "Because you know you're important in a way to people, but you don't always hear it."

"I don't sort of sit there and bask in it … because I've got things to do, right?"

A future for the Laidback Gardener

Hodgson is still writing. But as he scales back, his son Mathieu lends a hand. He's started delving into his father's vast archives, republishing articles and columns.

Mathieu was the one who got Hodgson blogging in the first place. He's building a team of writers who will keep the spirit of Hodgson's work, and the community of readers, alive.

Rosemarie Sabor
Rosemarie Sabor

"Eventually, his face will no longer be front-and-centre," says Mathieu. "I think rather than having a laidback gardener, it'll be about how we can all be laidback gardeners."

Hodgson is happy to have a plan in place for the future.

"I keep moving up the quantity of oxygen I need just to function," he says. "I'm going to get very soon to the point where there is no longer a machine that can supply enough for me.… There's still time left. But how much I don't know."

After decades in a basement office, the family moved his workspace upstairs during his recent hospital stay.

"Now I see birds, I hear birds!" he says. "I can see outside a lot better. I see flowers and colour. So I do spend a little time looking out and just enjoying things."