The tiny garden — finding allies

As summer heated up, my Mom and I tended our tiny guerrilla gardens — and found allies along the way.

One day my mom descended the steps towards her little garden in a Rosedale Park.  As she approached, she noticed that a good Samaritan had put down some topsoil and added a few plants.

She was a bit shocked at first but we tried to reframe the experience.

“I think someone has been inspired by your little garden, Mom,” I told her.

Over the next few weeks, she diligently watered the expanded garden. She noted that as her spring pansies started to fade, a new generation of geraniums and zinnias — planted by the good Samaritan — were coming into their own. “They’re budding out very nicely,” Mom told me.

IMG_4783 tiny garden July Sheila

Toronto entered a heat wave with daily temperatures into the 30C range. Still, mom set off each morning from her apartment with a watering can, and often returned later that day, to keep her garden watered.

Fans and allies

Along the way she discovered she had some gardening fans — and allies. “Just a quick note,” she wrote, “to tell you that while I was watering our pansies, a lady stopped and mentioned to me that she has already met and chatted with you when you were digging in the garden! Her name is Mary and she has kindly offered to do some watering for us once in awhile.”

Mom also said she had been visited by the good Samaritan who had placed the soil and extra plants around the little log garden. She couldn’t recall the woman’s name but had thanked her. Meanwhile, she noted that many people “had stopped with complimentary comments about our mini garden. I like to think it is appreciated by most of those who use the steps, up or down.”

“So you’re the mystery guy”

Over at the gritty northwest corner of Pape and Cosburn, I was quietly watering my Tiny Garden #3 one morning when the crossing guard approached me: “So you’re the mystery guy with the flowers,” he said.

“Yeah I live down the road and I thought the corner needed sprucing up,” I replied.

“Well people appreciate it and were wondering who put them there,” he said, stepping out into the intersection with his stop sign.

“Thanks for keeping everyone safe,” I told him.

IMG_4780 tiny garden July ian

My tiny garden now had some other allies:

While I was out of town one week, my Thorncliffe garden friend Debi and her husband dropped by to water it.  The couple are guerilla gardeners in their own right. They have planted two beautiful trees at one entrance to a major grocery store on Broadview Avenue.  The trees — a silver maple and locust — are flourishing with some occasional TLC by Debi and her husband.  They seem to have been adopted by the grocery store grounds crew as well, who keep the grass well cut around them

Hope and inspiration

Another gardening friend, Mike M., who was awaiting some major surgery, wrote to me: “I’m sure the fun,  colour and HOPE of the transformation of that grey space will put people right at the core of natural beauty, and may inspire them to spread the beautiful concept.”

On that note, my friend Reshmi, a former colleague in health care communications, gave me a large flower pot to expand the tiny garden, and offered her help with the expansion. And Mike R., who rides his bike through the intersection daily, said he would keep an eye on it during his commute to work. Friends and fellow citizens were coming out of the woodwork to support Tiny Garden #3.

Did I mention the cashier at the Wine Rack across the street? She told me: “Oh I love those flowers, I wondered where they came from.”

So much goodwill for the little guerilla gardens — the gardeners are feeling blessed!



Tiny garden #3 — on a mission

IMG_4697 tiny garden 3

While my mom adopted and lovingly tended her new guerilla garden in a park near Rosedale Subway, I found a location for my next tiny garden.

Pape Avenue north of Danforth is a bustling community featuring small shops, schools and a community centre where our kids used to swim. Homes are a mix of high-rise rentals and post-war houses. It’s grittier and perhaps more vibrant than the popular Danforth Avenue nearby.

But the busy intersection at Pape and Cosburn had fallen on tough times after the closure of Crow Cleaners, a dry-cleaning and laundry shop where workers once starched and steamed shirts on big machines in the window facing Cosburn. Situated on the northwest corner of the intersection, the once-thriving shop was now boarded up, its paint peeling, a target for graffiti.

Despite its forlorn state, many people continued to congregate on its broad steps to catch some shade, await a bus or meet a friend. Each day nearby, a crossing guard with his orange vest, whistle and stop sign would ensure safe passage of hundreds of school kids and citizens at rush hour times.

So I decided to brighten up this neglected corner — with Tiny Garden #3.

Planning the mission

Tiny garden #3 started with a large green pot discarded by my neighbor earlier this year. The pot seemed sturdy enough. It was reasonably light and had a big hole for drainage. Next was a nice arrangement of sun-loving red and white geraniums for this south-facing garden. I came across a basket arrangement on sale for 15 bucks at a garden centre and pounced. Finally, I prepared some home-made triple mix consisting of earth from my garden, well-rotted compost from our kitchen veggie scraps, and some peat moss.

On an early May morning I parked on Cosburn Ave. and walked my materials over to the corner. My heart rate spiked a bit as I approached the site — not from the exertion of hauling a heavy load, but because of the nature of my guerilla gardening mission itself.

I was about to install a tiny garden in the concrete jungle, with no permissions and likely contravening at least one important municipal bylaw. Not to mention I had cheaped out by not putting money in the parking metre.

I felt like that guy in the movie Platoon, who was on what could be his last military mission. “I got a bad feeling about this one,” I told myself. But I carried on, as my late Dad would say.

I got organized, set up the garden quickly and emptied a watering can on it.

A ray of sunshine

The spring sun was shining, school kids were babbling as they crossed the intersection on the way to school. The red and white geraniums in my pot were in full bloom. I had high hopes for Tiny Garden #3.

As every gardener knows, planting is the easy part. It’s the ongoing TLC that can be tough. But for today, Tiny Garden #3 had landed.

Mission accomplished.



Adopting the little log garden

Three days had passed since my clandestine mission to install a little guerilla garden near my mom Sheila’s apartment building downtown.

I’d been back once to water the five pansies I had planted in and around an old cedar log in a ravine park near Rosedale subway station.

But still no word from Mom, although I knew one of her walking routes took her right by the little garden. I decided to send her an email and get right to the point:

May 2, 9:22 a.m.: “Hi Mom, by chance have you come across a little garden like this on the steps up to Rosedale subway? It looks a bit like your log garden in Don Mills.”

IMG_4453 the log

The suspense was killing me. But she got back to me later that day.

May 2, 5:05 p.m.: “Hi Ian.  Yes… I have just walked past this colourful pansy display… halfway down the steps, and can show it to you tomorrow. A nice reminder of my earlier Don Mills log garden.”

I decided to spill the beans.

May 2, 6:50 p.m.: “Glad you like it. I put it there for you! When the pansies fade we can put in a few geraniums.”

We had planned a walk the next day but the weather didn’t cooperate, so we rebooked for Sunday evening.

In the meantime, Mom reported back:

May 4, 4:29 p.m.: “Just a quick note to say that I’ve just enjoyed another steps walk and I’m pleased to see that all your blooms, yellow and purple, are still brightly coloured and healthy.”

The good news? She was intrigued by the little garden. The bad news — her use of the second-person “your” signalled, perhaps, that she was not taking ownership of it quite yet. It was still my guerilla garden.

One day later…

May 5, 4:25 p.m.: “Hi Ian, just another quick note… to let you know that I have just watered our special flowers by the steps! And I’ll continue to do this daily, if there’s no rain.”

Mom was now using the first-person plural — “our” flowers! I sensed she was on her way to adopting the little log garden.

Gentle rain

That Sunday in May we took a walk in the rain to see the pansies. After a long Canadian winter, Mom said it felt like a spring evening in England — a gentle rain was greening up the grass and gardens. Robins sang and pecked for worms.

Mom was surprised by how large the pansy blooms were. Her parents grew pansies in England and these ones were multicoloured and much larger.  I replied that I thought the pansy growers had bred bigger flowers over many generations. This would also make them sell faster at five for ten bucks at Sobey’s, I thought.

I had brought a long a small hand trowel and a mixture of home-made compost, peat moss and garden soil. Mom pointed out a few weeds that had sprouted around the pansies and I plucked them out while edging the little garden bed with the trowel.

An older man down on his luck shuffled past down the steps, then made a 90-degree turn into the woods to find some solitude. Meanwhile, two young women walking a black Labrador dog came past us going in the other direction. The dog wanted to sniff the pansies but my Mom kept him at bay. The dog’s owner smiled at us as she reined in her dog, checked her cell phone, and passed by.

Garden friends

Mom told me that an older couple had stopped to chat while she was watering the flowers the previous day and had complimented her on the garden. “My son planted it,” she told them, going for the sympathy vote. They told her they enjoyed seeing it every day and it seemed to be flourishing.

I emptied the compost mix beside the garden bed and mom gave instructions about where to spread it. “The pansy inside the log needs some too.”

On the way back to her seniors apartment building that evening we passed bold blue Hyacinth blooms and yellow daffodils planted the previous fall by the Parks Department in a park next to Yonge Street. The city was greening up and people had emerged to stroll with a spring in their step. The next week, we would return on a sunnier day — two guerilla gardeners in the heart of the city:

IMG_4458 me and mom

As we said goodbye I presented mom with the garden trowel, wrapped in a plastic bag, and she accepted it.

From failing hands I had passed the trowel — be hers to hold it high this gardening season.

My mom had officially adopted the little log garden.






The little log garden that could

Near Toronto’s Rosedale subway station, a non-descript walkway and set of  concrete steps lead to a secret ravine that is a green oasis for local residents. The ravine is a regular walking route for my mom Sheila, who lives nearby in seniors apartments on Yonge Street.

Lately, Mom lamented the loss of her gardens in Don Mills.  She had lovingly tended three guerilla gardens there in a public park near Norman Ingram school — two around trees dedicated to here parents, and one in an old hollow log closer to her condo.

So as my entry into guerilla gardening, I decided to give Mom her own little garden in the ravine.

IMG_4341 the log

I had obtained a piece of hollow cedar log from  my inlaws’ cottage — it would recreate Mom’s favourite “log” garden in Don Mills and act as a centrepoint for the new garden.  I hauled the piece of cedar, along with a spade, a hand trowel, a plastic milk jug full of water, and some spring pansies — five for ten bucks at Sobeys — over to the new site.

A gardening SWAT mission

I found a nice spot on the landing of the ravine steps, with good sun exposure. And like a good guerilla gardener on a horticultural SWAT mission, I started digging vigorously, hoping to get the job done before having to explain myself to anyone.

I dug down a circle wider than the log diameter, then placed the cedar log inside, nestled into the soil. Using the hand trowel, I added soil to the log’s hollow area, and planted a yellow pansy there. As I moved on to work the soil in front of the log, I had my first visitor.

“Oh that is nice,” exclaimed an older woman coming down the steps. “We need more flowers here.”

“It’s for my Mom,” I replied, going for the sympathy vote. I realized that I was working up quite a sweat down my back between my vigorous digging and undercurrent of guilt at my illegal gardening activity. “This is one of her favourite walks.”

“Well thanks for brightening up the space,” the woman said, continuing on her way.

I got down to the final step of planting — by alternating purple and white pansies in front of the log. With the hand trowel, I dug spaces for each pansy and worked the soil around and on top of them.

So pretty

I was hustling to complete my entry into guerilla gardening when a second visitor came by. “Oh that is pretty,” said an older woman in a trim purple sports jacket. When I say older, I mean a few years older than me. She had her white hair tied back neatly and was smiling as she caught some afternoon sunshine while descending the steps.

“Thanks, it’s for my Mom,” I replied, figuring this line had already won over my first visitor. “She lost her garden when she moved downtown.”

“I can sympathize with that,” my visitor replied.  “I live in an apartment too. There’s a man who maintains a garden in a vacant spot next to our building. I tried to help him out but he is a bit of a control freak.  So I just leave him some plants from time to time and he fits them in.”

“Maybe you could find another spot,” I suggested.

She told me she wanted to grow some herbs near her building, to have a fresh source close at hand for cooking. She had seen some herbs for sale outside a local variety store, and would have a closer look.

Tiny Garden #2

I wished her well and took the final step of branding this tiny log garden. I inserted a stick with a small sign indicating this was “Tiny Garden #2.”  As Tiny Garden #1 existed only in my imagination, I thought my sign would indicate that this idea was trending.

I pushed the sign into the soft earth to complete the picture. I hoped this tiny garden would survive — and that my Mom would notice it next time she walked by!






Alchemy! Work your composter to perform magic in the garden

On a cold March day I was trying to get the jump on spring at my community garden plot in Thorncliffe Park.  The thaw had come out of the ground, mostly. So I was wrestling it into shape with my old spade, using a technique called the double-dig. This would save me time later during the spring planting season.

The wind whipped through the hydro towers, while the first wave of migrating birds alighted for a feed at my friend Linda’s bird sanctuary. I was all alone at the community garden, on hydro land north of the Swiss Chalet.

IMG_3917 composter

Or thought I was. Mid-grunt, with my head down, I heard a friendly greeting: “Could you use some nice vegetable scraps?”

I turned around to find an older man proffering a grey bag. “It’s stuff from my kitchen.” He had a slightly guilty smile.

“Oh, hey,” I said, lifting my head. At 56, I had lived my whole life without ever having had someone offer me squash rinds, carrot clippings and coffee grounds. “Sure!”

“I live in an apartment and don’t like to see it go to waste,” the man said.

“Rick, by the way, he added. “We don’t have a composting program at my building so it just goes into the garbage. I see you have a composter,” pointing to my black bin.

“Hi Rick, Ian” — we shook on it.

Rick, in fact, had made an earlier delivery after he spoke to Linda while she was feeding the birds.  Linda had left me a voicemail about the this offer of vegetable scraps, and I had given the green light.

My compost benefactor

So here was my benefactor in person, with his second delivery.

“This is great timing,” I told him. “I just kick-started my composter for the 2018 season.”

Rick admitted he didn’t know how composting works, and I explained what I had learned through trial and error over the years. “Composting is like a chemical reaction,” I told him.

Indeed, composting is a form of alchemy that can reward the gardener with rich — did I mention, free? — fertilizer for the soil. It requires some key inputs such as:

  • carbon, from dried leaves, straw or newspaper for example
  • nitrogen, from veggie scraps for example
  • bacteria, easily obtained from soil
  • and finally: oxygen and moisture.

You gotta work the pile!

Just like a high-strung sports car, your compost pile needs regular maintenance.

You can’t just toss in the green scraps. They will sit inert until you are collecting Old Age Security.

No, you gotta work the pile. Start with the right inputs. With each deposit of green scraps from the kitchen, add some soil and some newspaper or dried leaves.

Take time to aerate your pile from above every few weeks. A broom stick works, or a long piece of rebar has a nice heft and will do the trick to poke holes and get the pile moving. Add some water occasionally, especially if the pile seems dry.


With some regular maintenance your high-strung composter will run nicely and produce some rich dark compost year round. There’s nothing like seeing your composter steaming away magically in mid winter while Don Cherry is blathering away on Hockey Night in Canada.

Most composters have a small opening at the bottom from which to dig out the finished product. Removing the good stuff then kick-starts the process again as you poke the pile from above and get it moving and aerated. You can even accelerate the next batch by tossing a bit of finished compost on top to keep the bacteria working from both ends.

Use some finished compost as a top dressing fertilizer or dig some in for new plants. Properly composted material will be free of weed seeds. It will feed your soil with nutrients while also retaining moisture.

The wind was brisk but the spring solstice sun was warming the ground. I thanked Rick as he headed off.

“I’m happy for more donations,” I told him. “My vegetables and flowers will thank you.”




Guerilla gardener

My “four-corners” jogging route in the Danforth neighborhood takes me past a forlorn block on the east side of Broadview Avenue.

It looks to be a former grocery store or other retail establishment than went belly up years ago. The sign in the window says a dollar store is coming, but I’m dubious.

At the north end of the storefront there’s a cute little brick patio full of weeds and trash. It will be the site of my first guerilla garden.

IMG_3867 guerilla 2

I got the inspiration from my Mom.  After she and Dad moved to a condo in Don Mills, Mom maintained her passion for gardening by carving out three small circular gardens in a nearby public park.  Two of them surrounded trees she had dedicated to her parents Arthur and Ruth, each with a small plaque. The third surrounded, and filled, an old hollow log stump.

Many walkers, joggers and cyclists would remark on the pretty pink geraniums she grew. I donated some perennial pink mums that also did well in her little plots.

The parks department people respected the territory she had carved out — they neatly cut the grass around the edges.  And when three police officers on bikes dropped by once to ask her what she was up to, she indicated that these gardens, in fact, belonged to her, as she had paid for the trees dedicated to her parents. Duly noted. The police wished her well and hopped back on their bikes. After all, she was the guerilla gardener of Norman Ingram Park.

Mom lives downtown now and has been known to practice her guerilla gardening tactics on any geranium in the Davenport and Yonge area. This includes a nice flower arrangement outside a condo building that gets attention on her daily walks from spring to fall.

Now it’s my turn.

I’m still a proud member of one of Toronto’s oldest community gardens in the Thorncliffe Park neighborhood.  And I’ve got high hopes for my veggie and flower garden there this summer, and for some special projects. But on that forlorn little patio on Broadview Avenue, my first guerilla garden will rise.  I’m calling it Tiny Garden #2 — to imply that it is, perhaps, the start of a movement.

IMG_3869 guerilla 1

I’ve set myself a few conditions for my first guerilla garden:

— it has to be pretty — there are many folks walking that stretch of sidewalk each day and I hope that Tiny Garden #2 will brighten their day

— it has to be low cost — I’ve already acquired a suitable planter pot left out by a neighbor: free to good home. My sources of soil and compost are close at hand and free.  I may visit Home Depot for some potted flower arrangements in spring.

— it has to be maintained. I will be a steward of my Tiny Garden #2, but also be open to the stewardship of others.

— I need to be prepared for both miracles and disasters at my guerilla garden, and be ready to tell its story. I need to be prepared to defend or relocate my garden if the promised Dollarama store does not take kindly to it.

The guerilla gardening torch is being passed, be mine to hold it high.

Wish me luck.





Garden visions

DSC_0556 sweet pea

In the dead of winter, we conjure garden visions…

It was a cool but sunny day in April, and an older couple had agreed to meet me to accept their new plot at Thorncliffe Park Garden Club.

Even though I had given my standard note of caution to them, my heart sank a bit as I assessed the plot in advance. The small fence was bent and broken in places. Gaps had opened in the chicken wire intended to keep out critters. A chaotic collection of weeds sprouted from the soil. A few discarded Tim Horton’s cups blew about the 12×20-foot rectangular plot. Clearly, the previous gardener had made a good start the previous year but had been unable to sustain the momentum.

Assigning vacant plots in the spring was often one of the happier tasks I had as president of one of Toronto’s oldest community gardens. Each year, perhaps 10 of the 100 individual plots would come available to new gardeners on our waiting list.

I would speak to each new gardener by phone first, using a standard line — blending caution and optimism — for these occasions: “Each plot is different. Some of them need a little work. Some have some hidden treasures — like a raspberry bush that’s been left behind. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and spend some time to get your plot in shape.”

On this spring day, I spotted the new gardener couple ambling arm in arm down our garden lane. They were ready to claim their little piece of paradise. I put on my game face and welcomed them: “Hi folks!”

Elena and Frank were long-time residents of the Thorncliffe Park neighborhood. They lived in an apartment with a small balcony but longed for a small garden to grow tomatoes, beans, leeks, onions and other nutritious vegetables. They had been on the waiting list for several years. (The story is true; their names and some details are changed).

Together we walked along a path between some neat and nicely-tilled plots to arrive at their future garden. By comparison to the plots nearby, it looked like a disaster zone.

It’d be an understatement to say that Elena and Frank were processing the sight of their new plot in very different ways. Frank’s face tightened and he inhaled sharply. “Oh no, it’s terrible,” he muttered. His wife Elena, by contrast, had tears of joy in her eyes and a smile on her face. “We can clean it up, Frank,” she gushed.

“So many weeds,” said Frank.

A glass half-full

“It’s going to be beautiful,” countered Elena, whose glass, as the saying goes, was definitely more than half full.

True to Elena’s word, the garden was tilled, the weeds discarded and the fence repaired nicely within a couple of weeks. Frank and Elena visited their plot most days, met some new friends, and brought home produce to their extended family.

Almost out of necessity, and especially with our long winters in Canada, many of my gardening friends are visionaries, just like Elena.

We gardeners dream of spring

In the dead of winter, we dream about the garden in spring. It’s a great time to conjure garden visions:

  • One friend, Robert, imagined the colourful blooms of the many hundreds of tulip bulbs he had carefully planted the previous fall around the perimeter of his Thorncliffe apartment building. His tulip garden would be a gorgeous gift to his fellow residents as well as many people walking or driving through the nearby shopping mall.
  • Ann, a retired teacher, puts pencil to paper in winter to map out next year’s garden — drawing changes to her mix of vegetables and flowers, or occasionally drafting a completely new garden layout. For her, it’s a time to get out the weeds and see the big picture, to take an artistic touch to garden planning.
  • Like Frank, I am a bit pessimistic by nature, so I order a seed catalogue each year to kick-start my garden visioning. With January’s extreme cold weather setting in, I can peruse my colour catalogue from William Dam Seeds in Dundas, Ontario. It lets me garden vicariously through its colourful images of traditional vegetable varieties and new hybrids, berries, as well as annual and perennial flowers.
  • Claus, my father-in-law, would start some seeds indoors in trays. This gave a jump on the growing season to plants such as the sweet pea pictured in the photo above. On a cold winter’s day in Toronto, the seeds sprouted. He could already imagine them winding their way up his stone chimney and along the rough wood siding of his cottage garage near Minden in summer.

Sometimes our garden visions are a single image — like the picture Elena had in her mind of a beautiful and well-ordered garden.

But the reality can be even richer. Our gardens will soon begin to grow and evolve throughout spring and summer — starting in late March, as soon as the ground can be worked.