Tiny garden twilight

It was Halloween day and the tiny garden was dressed for the occasion.

I had stopped into a dollar store nearby for some festive black spiders and orange paper pumpkins to adorn the two pots of now-droopy geraniums at Pape and Cosburn. From a fruit shop, I acquired some gnarly green-and-orange gourds, and a little pot of cyclamen flowers to give the garden its last blast of colour before the long Canadian winter set in. People hurried to and fro to pick up candy to shell out, or find last-minute costumes for Oct. 31st.

A radio journalist had dropped by to interview me about the tiny garden. Quinton is a family friend studying at Ryerson University. For a radio feature, she wanted to learn more about guerilla gardening and so had booked time to visit.  It was a nice way to bring closure to this year’s garden season, and to think about the meaning of guerilla gardening.

IMG_5303 pumpkin

An act of faith

Quinton started with the specific — “What’s going on today? Describe you garden? — and moved to the universal — “How do you define guerilla gardening? What are the benefits?” I recalled my nervous SWAT mission to install the garden that spring. Gardening in a public space had been an act of faith. It had some trials but the tribulations had been worth it. The garden had put a smile on the faces of many passersby at an urban intersection that felt down on its luck.

As a journalist myself, I found inspiration in the next generation — here was Quinton visiting the scene with her tape recorder, questions and insights, to uncover garden moments and meaning. Quinton also asked if she could speak with my guerilla gardening mentor — my mom Sheila, who had carefully tended a small garden in a park near Rosedale subway station this summer.

Fleeting blooms

A few weeks later, when I was chatting with mom, she mentioned Quinton had visited, and they had walked over together to her “steps” garden. As early November weather set in, some hardy pink Mums provided final blooms as the two talked about the little garden that caught the eye of so many downtown residents and passersby.

Later in November, I dropped by Pape and Cosburn Avenue to take away my two large pots and their fading flowers.  They were heavy, so I parked my minivan illegally and hustled to drag them over and put them inside.

“You had a good run”

Leo the crossing guard came by. “Putting the garden to bed, eh?” he said. “You had a good run.” I asked Leo about his winter schedule — he is there several times each day to ensure the safety of hundreds of residents who cross the busy intersection. “My only vacation is in the summer when school’s out,” he added.

With the garden season in twilight, I wished Leo well. I told him I hoped to bring back the tiny garden next spring.


IMG_4458 me and mom

Guerilla gardeners




Trouble in the tiny garden

IMG_5190 October white zinnia

My mom and I had beat the heat, helping our tiny gardens survive a steamy summer. But if guerilla gardening is an act of faith, our faith was to be tested a few more times in 2018.

At the urban intersection of Pape and Cosburn Avenues, my little collection of geraniums got some kudos for brightening up a dismal corner. Still, they needed regular stewardship against occasional unkindness — with every visit, I continued to remove a motley collection of objects deposited in the flower pots:

— a McDonald’s coffee cup

— a TTC transfer

— cigarette butts

— a cigarette lighter (broken)

— and perhaps most intriguing: an empty can of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, alcohol content 8%.

Luckily a nearby city bin accepted waste and recyclables, so I regularly deposited these and other items that had been so casually tossed into the tiny garden.

One day, I noticed my Tiny Garden #3 sign had gone missing. The flowers were fine, but their signage and branding had walked away. Somewhere out there, I thought, someone has carefully conserved my rustic attempt at a garden sign. It had been fashioned on a small piece of plywood, with capital letters written in black marker, fixed to a 1×1″ stick. I am sure it is now someone’s private shrine. At least, that is my hope.

Dire news — garden thievery

Over at my mom’s little guerilla garden near Toronto’s Rosedale Subway station, the news was more dire.  My mom had headed out one day with her watering can and trowel, when a resident in her building gave her the warning: “Sheila, it looks like somebody has damaged your garden unfortunately.”

As my mom got closer to her beloved tiny garden, she spotted gaping holes left by a thief who had made off with geraniums and zinnias — roots, leaves, flowers and all.

As a long time community gardener, I am accustomed to having things walk away from my plot — the worst theft ever was of my entire red currant bush. On a recent visit to my plot at Thorncliffe community garden, my neighbor Boris showed me how thieves had jumped his fence to make off with bags full of cherry tomatoes.

To catch a thief

I sympathized with my mom.  At the same time I tried to give her some context: “Mom, remember that hundreds of people have enjoyed your garden. It’s just one person that has damaged it.” That may be true but the idea can feel a bit trite to a gardener who has carefully nourished plants over months, only to see them disappear in an instant. She considered the thievery to be a beastly act, and I agreed.

I was reminded of a newspaper clipping my uncle Ray had once sent me in the mail from the UK. He knew my interest in community gardening, and he had heard about my stolen red currant bush.  “ALLOTMENT GARDENER GIVES BOTH BARRELS TO VEGETABLE THIEF,” the headline screamed. The story went on to describe how the gardener had laid in wait overnight with his shotgun. He was now facing a manslaughter charge. I empathized with the man’s stolen veggies, but thought his method was a bit extreme.

Abandoning the tiny garden

What can you do? We tried replacing a few of mom’s plants with some new ones, only to see them disappear from her plot. She was heart-broken. Twice bitten, thrice shy. She decided to give up her tiny garden.  She started taking another route on her daily walks. Friends in her building commiserated with her plight.

I held out hope, though. On a recent visit with mom I asked her if she had been by to visit her tiny garden at all. She admitted she had recently taken some scissors to trim back the weeds next to the path, and a trowel to dig over the soil a bit.  Some geraniums had made a comeback in the fall, pushing out red blooms, she added. And the original mums we had planted behind a hollow log in the spring had started to bud up.

Holding out hope

“They are late bloomers mom, they will put on a pink show for you in about a month.”

Mom said she would keep an eye on things and hope for the best.

IMG_5189 October mums

Late bloomers and theft survivors: Mom’s mums in October 2018. At top, a remaining pretty white Zinnia in mom’s tiny garden, October 2018.



Tiny garden double-double

IMG tiny garden double double

A network of good Samaritans had helped my tiny garden survive the summer heat wave in T.O.

One of them, my friend Reshmi, donated an unused planter to the tiny garden cause.

Fall days were shorter and cooler and kids headed back to school, sporting their colourful backpacks. As the population of citizens at the gritty north-west corner of Pape and Cosburn swelled, I delivered the tiny garden double-double.

On a mission

It was another gardening SWAT team mission of sorts.  With my minivan illegally parked on the north side of Cosburn to avoid a 2-buck parking fee, I executed my sortie with maximum efficiency.

First, I hauled a bucket of soil and the new pot over to the corner of Pape and Cosburn. I had placed some bricks in the bottom of the white pot for drainage — and to deter tiny-garden thieves who might find the new garden a wee bit heavy to make off with.

Next I ran back for some orange geraniums and my trusty blue plastic watering can. I decanted half the soil into the white pot, then put in the geraniums, followed by a top dressing of soil. The new pot, and its older companion tiny garden in a green pot, got a good soaking of water.

The next day I wobbled over on my red beater bike to check progress. The gardens were looking healthy with cooler weather and some sunshine.

Two thumbs up from Leo

Leo stopped to say hello. He comes by his name honestly. He is the lion-hearted crossing guard at Pape and Cosburn, helping hundreds of citizens cross safely each day at the start and end of school, and the lunch hour.

Leo had dubbed me “the mystery guy with the flowers” earlier this spring. He had been off during the summer so I introduced myself again:

“I decided to dress up the corner with some flowers,” I told him. “I live nearby.”

“Well it definitely needs it,” Leo replied. A bustling dry-cleaning business had closed down four years ago. “The guy who bought the business is doing some work on it, but it’s been awhile,” Leo added. Citizens still took shelter from bad weather under the former shop’s rough entranceway and steps at the corner.

Leo had a burning question for me: “Did you need any permits or anything to put the flowers here?”

“No, I guess it’s a guerilla garden,” I said.

Starting a trend

Leo had to go — he was brandishing his stop sign for the next wave of pedestrians: “Well it’s nice,” he said — “I hope you are starting a trend.”

I came by a few days later to water the garden but it looked like someone had done that favour for me — perhaps another good samaritan.  I picked off a few geranium bloom deadheads and removed a black and yellow Mike’s Hard Lemonade Can that had been placed next to the flowers.

The lemonade can boasted an alcohol content of 8%. It was empty. I hoped its owner, like Leo, had gotten a kick out of my tiny garden double-double.



Tiny gardens: beating the heat

tiny garden August Sheila

How hot was it?

It was so hot in Toronto in summer 2018 that this blogger once had to seek urgent cooling shelter in Fairview Mall, a place full of fashion shops in which I was too scared to set foot. But I did find a little variety store that sold me a diet coke.

Over at my mom’s tiny guerilla garden near Rosedale Subway, the multi-coloured zinnias, sturdy geraniums, red-blooming creepers and other plants added by a good Samaritan were coming into rich colour and profusion. My mom’s original batch of pansies in and around the hollow cedar log were still going strong, as she continued to pick off old blooms each day and keep them well watered.

Her garden blooms were peaking but the sun was beating down in “the Six,” with daily highs hitting 35 degrees. Extreme climactic events were in the news around the world. Shade was a precious commodity.

Praying for rain

To keep the tiny garden watered, my mom sometimes made three trips daily with her little apple juice containers filled with water. She prayed daily for rain.

Over at Pape and Cosburn, I was making furtive early morning trips on my red beater bike, wobbling along with a full watering can in the old basket, to keep my tiny garden hydrated — and to get home before I broke into a full-body sweat.

While I was out of town, many good-Samaritan friends volunteered to come by to water the little mixed planter of red and white geraniums.

Delivering hydration and TLC

My friend Reshmi texted to advise that the tiny garden got a bit droopy in the intense heat but was hanging in there. Her son came by to water it. My sister Louise dispatched her husband D’Arcy to deliver additional hydration. My garden friend Ann parked nearby to check on the garden and give it some water and TLC.

My tiny garden survived. Slowly the evenings grew longer, with a heavier dew overnight. I trimmed off dry deadheads, and removed a McDonald’s coffee cup and broken cigarette lighter from the planter. The geranium buds began to re-appear.

Fall sometimes feels like the end of this year’s garden; in fact, it’s the start of a second gardening season following dormancy triggered by the superheated summer.

As September Labour Day approached, our buds were swelling. The plants were greening up.

It was a tiny garden renaissance.

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.