Trees in winter… and in summer, and…

In winter, trees take on urgency in the landscape, looming larger than they ever do in summer. They stand so still and stoic against the bitterest winds, patiently waiting until the sun warms them out of their stupor and allows them to breathe and bend again.

They are not sentient, we are told, and we are lectured against the personification of non-human life forms, but I cannot help feeling a twinge of anxiety when I see a tree in distress.  It’s a physical thing with me. I feel the same way I do when I encounter a person or an animal in pain.

I know I am not alone in this somewhat irrational attachment to trees. There are many people like me who just plain like trees.

I am the immediate past president of Tree Canada, a foundation that was started over two decades ago to plant trees where people live in this vast country, and I know that there are many tree lovers out there. Among them is my tree-loving friend, Bill Vander Zalm, the former premier of British Columbia, who recently quashed the HST in that province. I mention Bill and his recent doings to illustrate how tree fanciers come from every walk of life.

Can you imagine growing up, then, in a cityscape of concrete with no trees? It must be so de-humanizing. Yet for years, it was the fashion to strip schoolyards of their trees and fill in the playgrounds with asphalt. When Tree Canada discussed the schoolyard greening with one reluctant Ontario school trustee, he responded with the excuse that trees were dangerous because, he said, they provided a place for kids to hide!  I have a vision of a kid playing hooky, pasted up against the off-side of a tree, rigid with the fear of being discovered.

It seems that for all those who love trees, there are others who, just as irrationally, hate them. There was the case of the Vancouver miscreant who systematically poisoned a boulevard tree in front of his condo because it obscured his view of the ocean. There was the Winnipeg man who destroyed a boulevard crabapple because it dropped its fruit on his lawn.

These vandalisms happen all the time, sometimes even on private property. Case in point was the elderly Winnipeg woman who, with her much loved husband, had planted a lovely birch some 30 years ago. The tree was at the height of its beauty and maturity when he died and she took her grief to the west coast. She returned some months later to suffer a second bereavement. While she was away, her next door neighbour had called in a tree service which topped the tree to just above eight feet off the ground. Imagine how this woman felt when she returned to find nothing but a tall stump, a remnant of the tree that symbolized her happiness with her just-deceased husband. The neighbour felt no remorse. The tree was dropping leaves on his property.

These stories break my heart, but there are many other stories that do just the opposite. For example, in the playground of a school in a downtrodden part of Winnipeg, there is a tree that was planted in 1881. It was an accidental tree, brought there by a young girl who heard about a tree planting taking place at her school and thought she would help. She found a wild tree and dug it up, arriving at school only to learn that the tree planting was for dignitaries only. An understanding teacher observed her heartbreak and arranged a private ceremony to plant the child’s tree. It still grows there today, 131 years later.

Why do trees matter so much to us? Who knows? But I delight in the artistic way the white pine thrusts its limbs into the air of the Canadian Shield and I mourn the loss of the hundreds of thousands that were stripped away across the land in the building of Canada’s railways, shipping industry and cities. (I know. It’s stupid. They will grow back, given a chance.)

I have to pause in awe as I travel under a cathedral of interlocking American elms that shelter many of the streets of Winnipeg, and I am thankful that we still have these elms unlike Truro, Nova Scotia. There most of their beloved elms fell to the scourge of the Dutch elm beetle. The people of Truro, though, so loved their trees that rather than burn them when they died, they stripped off the bark and carved the likenesses of their pioneers in the standing wood.

I remember my thrill on seeing for the first time, a handkerchief tree in Malaysia and then learning that there is actually one of these growing in Vancouver and several in the Carolinian forests of southern Ontario. It gave me a special sense of connection with a county half way around the world.

Handkerchief tree (c/o Google)

You’re being maudlin, I tell myself when I start to speak of these things, but there’s a part of me that whispers back, “Who cares! I love those trees.”


A Week In Wales

I am just back from a lovely trip to Wales with my garden writer friends, including Veronica Sliva and Donna Dawson, both of whom conduct garden tours on a regular basis. Donna runs the ICanGarden website that is such a favourite with Canadians from coast to coast.

Landing in Manchester, we were picked up by tour guide Donna Goodman, and her “coachman” Hugh Burnell. (“A bus,” Hugh informed us, “is something you stick your hand out to catch. This is a coach!” That signaled the kind of royal treatment we were to receive throughout the entire trip.) Donna also guided CTV’s Seamus O’Regan when he was in Wales leading up to the royal wedding.

Donna and Hugh whisked us off to Wales where we visitied gardens and estates. We stayed the first night at Bodysgallen Hall, which can trace its origins back to the 17th century. I loved its garden.

Knot Garden at Bodysgallen

We travelled from north to south, stopping at Anglesey and shopping in the same Waitrose supermarket that the newly Royal Kate shops in. We were told that if we took out our cameras, we’d be asked to leave!

Janie Smith

We stayed at many lovely manor houses and old estates and visited fabulous gardens as we made our way down the coast. One of these was Gwaenynog Hall in Denbigh, the garden that inspired Beatrix Potter to write the Tales of the Flopsy Bunnies and we talked with her great grand niece, Janie Smith. We went to Portmeirion, where the 60’s TV series, The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan, was filmed. We also toured the gardens at Ynyshir Hall, once owned by Queen Victoria.






Rhonda Gardens

Terry Walton

But a highlight of the trip was the allotment gardens at Rhonda.

In Wales, there is a certain group of gardeners whose triumphs and tribulations, are shared with the listeners of BBC Radio 2 as part of the Jeremy Vine show. Periodically, Terry Walton, an allotment gardener on the Rhonda hillside in South Wales, is a guest on the show. He has become a bit of a celebrity with an almost cult following throughout the country for his wit and wisdom in regard to the garden.

We had a chance to meet Terry at the allotment and talk to him and his fellow gardeners. It was pouring rain when we arrived so all seven of us crowded into a shed with Terry at the bottom of the hill until the downpour let up enough to at least let us use our umbrellas.

A garden allotment is a public space set aside for gardening by those who don’t have access to land in town. This allotment has been in use for many years, certainly since Terry was a boy of four, in 1950, when he learned to garden with his dad. By the time he was 11, he had an allotment of his own.

Terry is not alone up there on the hillside. It’s a whole community of avid gardeners who populate this place and garden every inch of the 20 allotments. We didn’t meet them all, but we did run into Pete the painter, Keith, Brian, and the man at the top of the hill, Roger.

Albie in his Greenhouse Cafe

Albie runs the cafe, a greenhouse, perhaps six by eight feet, in which is lodged a gas stove and a kettle for tea and strong coffee. Albie hauls water from home and always has a tin full of biscuits for favoured guests.  He’s had a bit of trouble with his health this past year, but that doesn’t keep him from coming to the garden every day and he is already looking forward to next year’s crop of runner beans.

The guys grow lots of runner beans and cabbage and peas and some potatoes in the ground. The more tender plants such as tomatoes and peppers are grown under glass because of the rain – fungus is a constant threat. I saw carrots growing in big bags, something I’ve been encouraging folks to try here. There are flowers here and there to attract the bees for pollination.

It rains a lot, but because the hillside is so steep, the water quickly runs off and in no time at all, the ground is workable.

The allotments are small – just 300 square yards each – long and narrow, extending from either side of a long pathway up the hill. It’s like a little village, dotted with a variety of small homemade greenhouses and garden sheds, each reflecting the personality of its owner, and every inch of ground is planted with something.

Wales is a country of many moods and terrains, but always green, green, green thanks to the rain and the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. There is something dreamy about the landscape that catches the heart. And gardening is not a pastime here, it is an ingrained way of life.

Yet, back here in Winnipeg where the air is now crisp as a fresh apple and the leaves are turning golden in the sunlight, it is not hard to choose my home. I love this land. Still . . .