Monday, July 13, 2015

A Garden is a Thing of Beauty

“Beauty—it turns people on,” says Garden Designer, Candy Venning of Venni Gardens. Candy attributes traveling quite a bit around the world and living in tropical countries to her love of beautiful things—especially flowers.
She claims to have inherited her strong eye for design from her fashion designer, nature-oriented mother. Combining these traits with her appreciation for public spaces (she recently completed work at the city-owned Sunset Cultural Gardens at Bay Front Park), Candy, a fairly recent arrival to Hamilton, has thrown herself wholeheartedly into the beautification of her Gibson/ Landsdale (GALA) neighbourhood.
Planting at the Sunset Cultural Garden
Already, with Simon, her partner, Candy has planted bulbs and seeds on the sly, in abandoned places, random streets and along boulevards. They mow the lawn for the Pearl Factory and give out seeds and bulbs that have been discarded by their suppliers at the end of the season, to GALA residents. “If you live on our block, you will have better gardens,” she promises.

Candy explains that the GALA neighbourhood group that she is a member of, recently received funds from the Hamilton Community Foundation (HCF) and the Social Planning Research Council (SPRC) to plant thousands of bulbs and seeds that have since been distributed at schools and other community venues.

“The idea is to foster pride, even if you are renting,” Candy says.
She owns a rental property where she has ripped out the grass and notes a markedly decrease in doggie poop and garbage. Describing it as an “evolving experiment” where she observes how plants behave, what thrives what doesn’t,  the garden is wild-looking but gets better each year.

In her work as a garden designer, Candy aims to show people that native flowers can be an attractive option for gardens. Even in her most traditional gardens, “I’ll throw in native species and not even tell people!”

I ask Candy what her dream garden would look like. “There has to be a meadow component in terms of a lot of different things that bloom and change from year to year,” she says.
The height of the plants is also important. “Do you recall being a child and walking through the tall grass, the smell of summer, the beautiful memories?” she asks.
Other elements of Candy’s ideal garden would include mowed walkways, shade structure and trees—of course!

For Candy, gardens should serve both art as well as function: “Rigid gardens don’t do much for us. A static garden doesn’t make my heart sing,” she says. “When you look at something that is not sustainable, it offends the eye. When you see a garden that’s changing and evolving, that is far more interesting, more pleasing.

Of course, she would love to get paid to do a public space (her idol is world renowned, Piet Oudolf, who has “the best job on the planet” and designs garden plans for Canada Blooms and the Toronto Botanical Gardens etc) but until that time, the next volunteer project Candy will be working on is the city-owned,  Birch Avenue Green Space.

Over the years, this space has had a lot of dumping (see below). Candy envisions just perennials, trees, and a structure where people can bring tents, “something that represents the neighbourhood in a positive light, that’s interesting, not ugly, but light and airy with some lighting on it.”

This fall, she will be doing a fundraiser with pollinator bulbs for the neighbourhood beautification project, as well as experimenting with plants that are both ornamental and edible too, like thyme, and asparagus: “artichoke has the most beautiful flowers and the bees love it. $1.49 at the market and what an effect!”

Birch Avenue Green Space.

Brenda Duke is the main lead on the beautification project for the Birch Avenue Green Space.
“Candy is my mentor though,” this full time office worker insists. “When it comes to gardens and plants, she knows best.”

Brenda’s home overlooks the Birch Avenue Green space. “I used to see negative activity migrating to the Green Space,” she reports. “I would see moms walking their kids to school, kids stopping to sit on the grass, and it was dangerous for them.”
Since the groundwork for the GALA planning team had just started, Brenda proposed focusing on cleaning up and beautifying the space.
She was well into digging and weeding single-handedly when she heard about the city’s “adopt a park” program—and was relieved to learn that they could do that work! They also brought in park benches and garbage cans.

Brenda and the GALA team of volunteers have planted two gardens and have been putting in another two this summer.
What Brenda finds particularly exciting about a project like this, is the neighbourhood interest it generates, and the relationships between neighbours that bloom. Since the first clean up in 2012, when it all began, people will come up to her and ask, “Brenda, when do we get a garden?”

They’ll admire the garden and ask for tips on how to plant and where to get bulbs and seeds. Children will regularly drop by at her house asking for bulbs and seeds to plant. “It doesn’t do much good to do this work and not pass it on,” Brenda says. “Teach someone a new skill!”

Getting into plants that attract pollinators was a little tricky: “People would say to me, “I thought you were putting in flowers!”” Brenda says, because it takes a while for pollinator wildflowers to look nice. This year, now that they are established, the plants are filling out and looking good. “We also planted some annuals, to make a disgruntled couple happy,” she jokes.
Of course, there have been negative comments: “I don’t know what good that is doing when there are other, more serious problems to fix.”  To which Brenda replies, “Everybody likes to look at flowers.”
She argues that it makes people feel better to see beauty around them, and it costs very little to do. “Why not?”

In addition to the community flower gardens, Brenda is deeply involved in the “beautiful alleys” project. This project draws hundreds and hundreds of volunteers to the bi-annual clean ups (they cleaned from Dundurn to Parkdale). “It’s so inspiring. You can walk through much of the city from area to area without having to go on the streets.”
The team is starting to look at which alleyways can use flower gardens.

Next Steps for GALA parks and gardens

The GALA planning team is looking into how they can extend the work they have being doing, starting at Birch Avenue over to Powell Park, to carry it through to other community spaces around Hamilton.

They are thinking about how to involve children in the city-run, summer Suppie Programs in taking care of the gardens and even creating a plot for the kids to experiment in.
Given that so many people are not certain if they are allowed to weed, Brenda plans to put in signage inviting volunteers to help out!
“People feel that it matters, what we are doing here," Brenda concludes. "You start with a clean up and pretty soon, neighbours are trading back and forth.”