This is a story several years in the making so it takes a while to tell. Stick with it though. It is about where gardens, community, life and death all meet.
When I started my business in Toronto, seven seasons ago, I wanted to find a good match for donating extra flowers. As any flower farmer or florist can attest, there are always perfectly lovely, leftover flowers after every market and event. The delicate and ephemeral nature of flowers dictates we harvest and order a little extra, just in case. Sadly a lot of this beauty goes to the compost (or worse, the trash). In Toronto, hemmed in by lack of time and needing to use transit to get around, I didn’t find a place to donate. When I moved to Hamilton, the perfect partner arrived in my mailbox.
My neighbourhood in Hamilton used to run a little ‘zine that they dropped into each of our mailboxes. One of the first editions I read was about a stately historical house da few blocks away called Emmanuel House. The article was about the history of the house and its current use: as a hospice. I immediately approached them and began donating in 2016.
Every week or so I’d swing by after work, carrying a bucket or two through their gates, past their gardens and up to the front door. The gardens were well maintained, but uninspiring and a bit gap tooth. One thing people might not know is before starting my business, I received a master of landscape architecture. My love and interest in plants and gardens is old, deep and varied. So week after week, I kept looking at their gardens and thinking about their potential. Another thing people might not know is my area of focus in grad school was therapeutic landscape design or healing gardens. Although I had designed a number of “healing landscapes” in school, I never got to see them built. So that winter I emailed with Linda, head of spiritual care and let her know that if there was ever any interest in redesigning the gardens, I’d love to try. And in winter of 2017, I got an enthusiastic yes, they were ready.
That winter myself and my friend and colleague, Heather met with the new, endlessly energetic director, Maria and began planning. Our original pitch was to redesign 1 garden. Instead we were asked to redesign all 3 yard spaces around the building.
Coming and going through the gardens and house, I began to witness the challenging and thoughtful work of the staff in the hospice. I must admit some level of trepidation. I had never spent time in a hospice. Before, when just donating flowers, I’d drop them at the front desk. But planning for the gardens, we were invited in, introduced and educated about the vital service the house provides. The staff there employs an incredible mix of patience, dignity, resilience, bottomless empathy, and no small amount of humour. Yes there were times of solemnity and sorrow, but there was also celebration and laughter. Death and life living side by side in one house as easy roommates and friends—not fearful enemies.
In 2018, Heather and I along with volunteers from local garden clubs and family members of former residents of the house, we installed the first two gardens. It was a wonderful but tense and tiring time for Heather and I. When we broke ground, we were not certain if the budget had been secured. Heather and I would work full days at the farm, run to the nurseries, eat dinner in the car and then work 3-4 hours in the garden in the evening.
There are two champions I want to highlight that without them, this transformation could never have been accomplished and Heather is one of them. Thoughtful, hardworking, amazing with people, Heather kept me on track as I tried to balance two major loads: being project manager on the garden and managing the flower farm operation. The other champion is of course Maria who endlessly went to bat for the project and worked with the fundraising office at Good Shepherd to accomplish the ultimate feat: donations for the entirety of budget we created.
With the first two garden installations complete, we held off on the largest install until May of this year. In the early spring, with its endless rain and cold, I walked over to the gardens regularly, seeing how last years installations faired. With the late warm up, not only did most things survive, they were a thriving jungle of greenery. In the fall, I’d planted over 400 bulbs. I almost burst in to tears when I walked into the back yard and saw all of the tulips blooming and the magnolia tree raining blossoms.
Again, Heather and I pulled together a planting plan, approximately 500 plants, and coordinated deliveries of plants, mulch, and triple mix with Emmanuel House staff. We worked with my neighbour, Owen, who runs a landscape design business. His experience and willingness to share has been priceless and he played an essential role helping with arborist work, sod removal and installing the garden fountains.
It all came together in a glorious full weekend of garden prep and planting with some of my staff, volunteers from the House, community members and family members of the current staff. Residents came out to sit on the new patio and talk with us while we worked. Neighbours stopped by to see the progress and help move supplies. It was the busiest part of the farming season, at the end of May where time and energy are a dwindling resource, often running dry. But instead the energy of everyone coming together around the garden filled up my depleted reserves. The garden was done—as much as any garden could be. I went to the farm. Heather headed for west for an adventure. Maria went back the work of the House. And the garden grew and began to reveal its magic.
In late July, to celebrate the garden installation completion, Emmanuel House hosted a garden party. Yes, there was punch and big hats. People roamed the gardens with the beautiful and informative pamphlets Heather had made which listed all the garden plants while the House music therapists played in the background.
Before the garden dedication, I had sat alone in the front garden by the fountain, taking everything in. I realized in all of the work and rush and worry, I had not ever actually sat in the garden to take it in. My usual visits were either to work or to think about what to work on next. As I sat, I felt a weight in my chest slide off. I listened to the bees in the flowers, the wind in the trees and the splash of the fountain. The garden did its work on me after all my work on it. I saw it fully then: imperfect but a heartfelt attempt to bring beauty and life into this space.
During the dedication we were led by Linda and the the music therapists in prayer and story. Linda shared a story about a resident who loved this quote attributed to Longfellow:
Kind hearts are the garden,
Kind thoughts are the roots,
Kind words are the blossoms
Kind deeds are the fruits!
The music therapist had put it to music in honour of this resident and this song we used as the refrain to the dedication prayer.
In this moment, I felt a deep upwelling of emotion. I stared up into the trees as tears washed down my face.
I thought of the song and the woman who inspired it.
I thought of my mother, who died in hospital 20 years ago from cancer during the winter right at the edge of spring. She would have deeply loved and been comforted by a place like Emmanuel House and its new gardens.
I thought of the garden and how distant all my worries and stresses seemed now and how more than worthwhile the work had been.
I felt the garden do its work on my heart: making it a kinder, more trusting and gentler place.
Yesterday I worked in the garden on my own, slowly and quietly. Maria popped outside and took me around back. We stood on the edge and watched everyone out for a barbecue. Nurses quietly conversed with and teased residents. Children bounced from table to table, eating tomatoes from the gardens veggie bed. Families sat with loved ones in the shade. Maria said to me how she wanted to show me this and to emphasize how much the space had been transformed and how much these gatherings meant. We talked on about future events and ideas, the work of the garden and how nice the breeze was that day.
Like all gardens, this one will evolve and grow. It will need tending. Residents, families, bees, butterflies and birds will pass through it and hopefully find sustenance in it. This is worthy work and I feel blessed to be a part of it. We need more of these havens, for people, plants and our greater ecological community. I look forward to seeing how I can help.
A final list to highlight all those who contributed to this project. If I have forgotten someone, I apologize, but know the garden remembers:
To Maria and Linda of Emmanuel House, champions and visionaries.
To Good Shepherd, working tirelessly for 50+ years in Hamilton to provide human services to our community’s most vulnerable, who took a chance with a small business with a big vision.
To the donors, for believing and investing in beauty.
To my ever hardworking and patient staff, especially Heather and Zoe who helped bring the garden to life.
To the staff and volunteers of Emmanuel House, for their hands in the dirt, their caring for the garden between our visits, and the endless supply of cool water and creamsicles.
To the residents of Emmanuel House and their families, for their kind conversation, help in the garden and support.
To the plantspeople and other small businesses that helped with the details, Owen of Outside Element, Dan of Garden Spring Landscape (who laid the beautiful patio in December!), Connon NVK, and numerous other people who helped contribute.