Gardening— high-tech and traditional— is enjoying a boom across the country
It’s a sunny May weekend morning in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean. Pushing shopping carts, throngs of hungry-eyed men, women and children prowl the 12 indoor aisles and outdoor walkways of the community’s White Rose nursery. Reprieved from winter’s long imprisonment, they now are, regardless of what they do for a living, primarily gardeners. Pointing and exclaiming, they move through a huge emporium of shrubs, shovels, hoes, ornaments, bagged earth, moss, gravel, sand and bark, filling their carts as they go. Winter has turned the corner into spring and their mission—shared with millions of others across Canada—is to dig, plant, water and fertilize. Karen Garlick, a 30-year-old professional forester who manages the Nepean
White Rose store, looks on approvingly and says,
“Now is the time, no question about it.” Clamoring customers line up to ask her for advice on rust rot earwigs and mulch. “The old traditional cross-yourfingers weekend,” adds Garlick, “is now just a couple of weeks away.”
In much of mainland Canada, that crucial window is the long Victoria Day weekend in May when the danger of frost has largely disappeared. Greenthumbed Canadians, gloved and armed, are about to launch the annual crusade to create gardens that will make last year’s look pale by comparison.
There are, however, isolated mutterings of discontent. Some gardeners say the often-frenzied marketing of their pastime and its mushrooming paraphernalia play too large a part in Canada’s premier summertime passion. But for most, the priorities are both simple and obvious: enjoyment and a sense of achievement. The appeal is clearly broad. “More than 80 per cent of Canadians garden in one way or another,” says Mark Cullen, 37-yearold president of the seven-nursery Ontario-based chain of Weall and Cullen.
That popularity has shown up in several ways.
For instance, sales of the publicly-traded White Rose nursery have more than doubled—from $61 million in 1988 to $124 million last year. Total revenues of the gardening and landscaping industry—an estimated $4.3 billion nationwide—have doubled in the last decade. The circulation of Canadian Gardening, a magazine that began publication only three years ago, has grown from 40,000 to 115,000. In fact, gardeners are besieged by an unprecedented flood of information from magazines, books and TV and radio gardening shows featuring products unheard of five years ago.
While the market has diversified, so has the audience. Judy Shedden, president of the Ottawa Horticultural Society, says that its membership of 400 ranges in age from 12 to 90. “We have Italians, Indonesians and Chinese—people from all over the world,” she says. In Ontario alone, there are 274 local soci-
eties with about 50,000 members. There are similar associations in other provinces, and also subgroups whose members specialize in growing roses, mums, African violets or dahlias. Gardeners flock to special lectures on once-neglected alternatives to digging in the backyard such as indoor, container or balcony gardening.
At the same time, legions of recruits in their 30s and 40s are dispelling the notion that gardening’s mysteries were fully understood only by older people or those who had nothing else to do. Recession-hit baby boomers are foregoing expensive vacations and instead spending their diminished dollars on beautifying their properties. ‘They want to enhance the quality of their life without having to buy a trip to Hawaii,” says Cullen. Canadian Gardening editor Liz Primeau thinks that “people in their 30s and 40s are discovering gardening as if it was something that was never there before.” Says Beverley Simpson, general manager of Vesey’s Seeds in York, P.E.I.: “We’re now running into a younger clientele and they want different things.” Lynne Banfield, proprietor of Lynne’s Little Elf Garden Centre near Victoria on Vancouver Island, is getting a lot of male customers in their 20s. “It’s not as
expensive as some other things,” says Banfield. “You can do a lot of gardening for $100.”
Beyond its modest entry-level price tag, gardening’s appeal has a lot to do with the awakening passion for conservation. Says Ed Toop, a St. Albert, Alta., horticulturalist: “People may feel a little closer to the earth these days.” And more reluctant to douse it with chemicals; nurseries report a greater interest in natural processes such as composting.
Despite the enthusiasm for exotic plants, there is a yearning for tradition. The Victorian-era English country garden look is enjoying a comeback. And perennials, which flower year after year and were part of most Canadian gardens years ago, have once again become big sellers. Recalls St. Albert’s Toop: “When I came to Edmonton in the 1960s, you really had to scramble to find anyone who sold perennials.” And Canadians are also rediscovering wildflowers and other native plants. Says Banfield: “This year we’re getting a lot of interest in plants native to British Columbia— ground dogwood, ferns and low-bush cranberry.”
No matter what their preferences, gardeners are also becoming a more serious bunch. For one thing, they tend to plan their gardens more formally. Says 35-year-old David Moss, who gardens with 26-year-old spouse Nicole in Woodlawn, near Ottawa: “Not so long ago we were at the stage of ‘Let’s just throw it in and see what happens.’ Now, we start planning in December the year before.” Retired Nepean couple Elsie and Ron Desjardins drew up plans this year to plant perennials instead of the vegetable gardens that had been plagued by marauding woodchucks. “What’s nice about this planning,” reflected Ron Desjardins, 63, “is that it gives you time to look forward to the good weather that lies ahead.”
But there may be signs of friction—if not trouble—in gardening’s demi-paradise: there’s an undeniable competitive edge to gardening that offends some. Others believe Canada’s summer adventure has swung too far in the direction of trends, specialization and novelty. Halifax chiropractor Robert McCrindle, who gardens both in Halifax and near Chester, N.S., objects to fads in gardening. He recently wrote Canadian Gardening to complain of “insipid and trendy” stories. In an interview, McCrindle said, “It’s all a bit too much like a fashion show.”
There are similar qualms among purists about the dizzying array of new tools and gadgets. These range from computerized watering systems, new kinds of fertilizers and herbicides to stand-up tools that take the ache out of gardening as well as special seed strips that don’t require planting in the time-tried fashion. Says Toronto gardening writer H. Fred Dale, who calls himself a “down-on-your-
knees-type gardener”: “Those strips you peg down at each end, and then water, work out to about the same cost as the produce you would buy at the store. You can say you’ve grown your own vegetables but in my opinion they’re for non-gardeners.”
Many more plants of alien origin have crept into the gardener’s repertoire. Chameleon plants, Chinese fly-catching vines, weeping cedar, kiwi fruit, the New Guinea winged bean, yellow beets and white eggplant are available from Canadian seed houses and nurseries.
“What the value of a yellow beet is I don’t know,” Dale says. “But breeders are always attempting to create novelties and some of them are quite useful.” One he cites is the New Guinea Impatiens, a strain of impatiens that thrives in sunlight
Yet some say traditional gardening is lagging behind advanced technologies such as hydroponics—growing plants and produce without soil. Says William Sutherland, 36-yearold proprietor of B & B Hydroponic Gardens in Ottawa: “As
far as I’m concerned, gardening outside in soil is a complete waste of time.” Sutherland has grown banana trees and hibiscus indoors and claims that hydroponics-irrigating root systems by nutrients borne in a solution—has other advantages. Some local physicians, he said, have told patients to eat hydroponically-grown produce to avoid the contamination sometimes found in conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables. Says Sutherland: “It’s definitely the wave of the future.”
But other gardeners insist that tech¿ nology, fashion and innovation are only g incidental to their passion. Gardener f Jack Lawlor of Medicine Hat, Alta., is a | 66-year-old retired teacher and one of | thousands of Canadians who regularly | watch TV shows about gardening for | fresh tips. “Do I try to to keep up with s Joneses?” asks Lawlor. “Perhaps so. You 5 go to somebody’s house and their garden is better than yours and you think, What the heck did I do wrong?’ ” That zeal to keep up with the neighbors, suggests Allen Paterson, director of the 2,700acre Royal Bofhnical Gardens in Hamilton, may stem from the fact that “people are beginning to see their gardens as an extension of their homes.”
But whatever the differences between gardeners, there is one constant—the annual search for improvements on last year’s theme, whether in color, arrangements or species. Everybody does it. In Yellowknife, 71-year-old Stan Hutyra, who makes his own earth in a soil-poor area by mixing muskeg with shredded
greenery and sand, is adding watermelon and canteloupe to his cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, peas, beans, dahlias and lilacs. Says Hutyra: “If you look after it well, almost anything will grow here. It’s a short season but the summer days are long.” In Medicine Hat, Lawlor is adding a wild cucumber vine to to his small city plot.
Now that the crocus has come and gone and the tulip is in full bloom, a lot of people eyeing the unmade beds in the backyard take time to reflect on why they garden at all. Says Sheila Copps, deputy leader of the federal Liberal party: “It’s just nice to get out there and see the fruits of your labor in a very direct way.” In the off-season she even enjoys reading about gardening: “I sit there and think about the things I never have time to do.” Says David Moss:
“What could be better than working with Mother Nature and and the earth and living things?” Edeltraut Schmitz, a manager at a landscape designing firm in Ottawa, sees gardening as a source of joy. “There’s something magical about going out in the garden first thing in the morning and seeing what has come up « overnight,” she said.
Judy Shedden remembers the plea| sures of gardening in the four provinces § where she has made her home—her | native Newfoundland, Alberta, Nova §
Scotia and now Ontario. “Every one has “ been different,” says Shedden. “But I’m
a Newfie at heart and I guess I’m prejudiced. We had beautiful rhododendrons, and broom and heather grew wild.” In any case, says Shedden, now 51: “It has been a wonderful hobby. The motto of our society is that gardening adds life to your years and years to your life.”
That’s a prescription that Canadian gardeners—out in greater force with every passing spring—are clearly now taking to heart.
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