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My Neighbourhood Garden Club
by Liz Primeau
by Liz Primeau

Liz Primeau's second edition of Gardening for Canadians for Dummies, updated and with a new chapter on using art in your garden, plus a design and garden-care workbook section, will be released in January, 2002.

She is at present writing a new book on front-yard gardens, to be published by Firefly Books in spring, 2003.

Liz is the the founding editor of the Canadian Gardening magazine.

January 12, 2003

Our suburban neighbourhood sprang to life during the housing boom of the 1950s, Monopoly houses on large lots on winding streets. Before its postwar life as home to growing families of dads who drove to work in the city and moms who stayed home to look after multiples of kids, it had been for years an orchard. The builder wisely preserved most of the trees--our lot still holds three gnarled old apple trees, soon, sadly, to be two.
Although I didn't live here in its early days, I hear it was a wonderful neighbourhood. Almost every afternoon the women would stroll over to the new strip plaza with the baby in the carriage and the toddler on a harness. There would be morning kaffeeklatsches and Saturday night barbecues and Victoria Day fireworks displays. By the time we moved in 22 years ago, the moms and dads had reached retirement age and the kids had grown up and moved away. It was still a pleasant, if reserved, neighbourhood, but without the know-everyone-on-the-block camaraderie of its former days. 
Then a couple of things happened: young families started to move in, and the gardening boom began. 
New beds and borders sprang up everywhere. Overgrown foundation plantings were ripped out and replaced with trendier shrubs mentioned in gardening magazines. Garden ponds with fountains and statuary were built. Neighbours asked neighbours for seeds or cuttings of admired plants. Young couples passing by my house on their evening outing, stroller and golden retriever in hand, would stop and ask how to get their wisteria to bloom like mine. Attitudes softened toward the man who preferred goldenrod, milkweed and other native plants to petunias and impatiens. No longer was he someone who should be reported to the weed police, he was a talented butterfly gardener concerned about the environment. 
A couple of years ago a couple of us thought the time was ripe for a neighbourhood garden club, and we were right. A dozen people came to our first meeting in January, and by May we had 20 members. That number has risen to just over 30, and although it may not seem like many by the standards of horticultural societies, it's a workable number for our meetings, held in the basement of a local church..
From the beginning it's been a vital and enthusiastic group with no shortage of ideas. Every year we hold an open garden day with eight or nine gardens to visit, plenty for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon. We sell plants and seeds from our own gardens at the homeowners' association annual swim and barbecue in June and--shades of the '50s!--each August we've held a progressive garden supper for members and spouses or partners. But the most ambitious project yet has been our annual and ongoing renovation of the tired gardens at the local strip plaza.
The first year we took on the bed outside the supermarket. I wouldn't go so far as to say the plants there dated back to the '50s but, except for a few roses, most were definite dinosaurs. With the enthusiastic support of the plaza owner, who agreed to foot the bill for plants, and with a plan from a landscape designer friend of a member, who donated her services, we dug out the old plant material, transplanted the roses, amended the soil and put in hostas, miniature lilacs, black-eyed Susans, variegated dogwood, campanula, purple coneflower, and more. With the help of the partner of one member, a professional gardener, we even put in an underground watering system. By midsummer, the garden was more than thriving, it was Jack's beanstalk and drawing admiring glances from visitors to the bank and the supermarket.
Last summer we revived a bed beside the plaza's coffee house, removing old shrubs and putting in daylilies, dwarf Alberta spruce and little bluestem grass, which turns a glorious red in fall and sticks around all winter. We also bonsai-pruned an ancient evergreen, turning it into quite a handsome and sophisticated devil. This spring of 2001 we're taking on the two raised beds in a courtyard beside the local restaurant in the plaza; one will be a rose bed--mainly hardy Canadian-bred shrub roses--with a pathway winding through it. The other, in the middle of which rises a huge oak tree, will contain low-growing perennial geraniums that thrive in shade, and some 'Baltica' ivy.
But it isn't just the members' ideas, initiative and willingness to take on projects like improving the strip plaza that I value about out garden club. I realize that without it I might never have known the doughty 80-plus gardener on the next street, or the talented young woman with the darling toddler and a new baby boy at the end of my block. I might never have met any of the funny, wise and warm people I've got to know since the garden club began. For me, anyway, it's turned out to be a good way to bring back the spirit of the neighbourhood.

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