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January 30, 2017 Meeting

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On Wildness: Community and Control in Urban Green Space

By: Ava Lightbody

The city is a structured place. Roads and sidewalks follow mainly straight lines, while houses, apartment buildings, offices and shops march dutifully alongside them, one after the other. Many of us live structured lives within our concrete, highly controlled world, following the schedules, routines, and norms of our workplaces and leisure activities. Urban green space is often no different – processions of trees stand on manicured turf and garden beds are filled with neat lines of annuals. Community use of park space is defined and limited by a stifling array of municipal policies, bylaws, permits, and red tape.

While this approach to governing public space is understandable in a city filled wCorn & beansith as many competing interests as it has inhabitants; the wild and wayward life of a tiny, disproportionately lively square of parkland in Toronto’s west end has a different lesson to teach us about the rewards of relinquishing control.

MacGregor Playground is an unassuming neighbourhood park bordered by Lansdowne Avenue and the CN Railway line, sandwiched between a high school and dense residential area. Local lore remembers its past incarnations as a mere short cut between Lansdowne and the smaller streets by day, and a dark, threatening place by night. Over the past several years however MacGregor Playground has begun to flourish under the tutelage of community members and a local arts group, now known as Botanicus Art Ensemble. The formerly non-descript park now features a Native Species garden, a bountiful Edible Teaching Garden, arts and garden programs for children and adults, and a series of seasonal nature-based community festivals.

Open garden gateThe Native Species garden is a small but exceptionally diverse collection of wild flowers, grasses, and shrubs – Grey Coneflower, Little Bluestem, and Witch Hazel. It is a microcosmic stage for the complex and cyclical dance of pollinators, pests, sun, rain, decay and rebirth. The Edible Teaching Garden is a whimsical oasis of curling little foot paths unfolding through oddly-shaped, lush garden beds – their curvatures echoing the spiralling, twisting tendrils and stems of companion-planted  heirloom squash, tomatoes, beans, and  herbs.  The gardens bring the wild back into the city – a wildness that is impermanent yet timeless, cyclical yet unpredictable, governed by pattern yet uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

As the stewards of the gardens, program participants temporarily transcend the domesticated cityscape and take part in something larger than the human. This “something” can be guided by our hand but is forever beyond our grasp. The Botanicus Art Ensemble artists invite everyone to be a little untamed, a little more free – and so they have been, donning elaborate hats with towering ornaments that reach to the sky, and long sparkling robes that flow like water.Herb spiral

Throughout the growing season of 2016, Botanicus Art Ensemble led garden-side, nature-inspired arts programs in theatre, dance, and music. Spring was celebrated with a large community gathering and a theatrical performance featuring original songs and characters such as “Snap Pea”, a strutting, singing pea plant, and “The Centipedes”, a dancing trio dispelling the stigma surrounding the creepy crawlies of the garden. July brought the “Bumble Bee Flash Mob,” a sudden eruption of lively music and dance within the crowd at the BIG on Bloor street festival, performed by community members dressed as bees and butterflies to honour the importance of pollinators within the ecosystem we all depend on. In harvest season the neighbourhood was brought together around food from the garden, and a participatory drumming procession that circled the empty wading pool as if performing an ancient harvest ritual.

Edible garden map“Working outside in a public park can be nerve-wracking”, says Artistic Director Kristen Fanrig, “because you never know what the day will bring – will there be a rainstorm? Who will turn up? But with professional artists & gardeners who can turn on a dime, and enthusiastic volunteers & participants, you can be sure that what seems like a scary tight-rope walk into the unknown will become a joyful fanfare that trumpets a combined creative expression.”

Between the celebrations were open drop-in workdays in the garden, spent learning and tending the garden and volunteer days for neighbourhood high school students. People from all walks of life transformed the garden from a flat plot of land and a handful of seeds to an Eden of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. A branch of the Toronto Seed Library was started, a city-wide initiative that promotes biodiversity and putting seeds and seed knowledge into the hands of community members. As the months passed, participants formed unlikely and unusual friendships with neighbours whose paths they may not otherwise have crossed. They have stepped outside their shells. They have lingered out in the park a little later.

Herb scavenger huntThe success of the arts and garden programs at MacGregor Playground sheds a new kind of light on the adage “if you love something then let it go”. Most Torontonians can see there is much to love about parks and their potential to improve urban lives – they give us a place to form a personal relationship with the environment, to be active and breathe clean air, to break down social isolation and build community.

Parks can be the life-giving counterbalance to wearying city life, but if MacGregor Playground tells us anything, it’s that a blossoming life cannot be contained in the structured world we create for ourselves. It is messy and indefinable, it is cracks and spills and unexpected outcomes. It comes from the ground and it unfurls in myriad directions. If we want to reap all the benefits that Toronto parks have to offer, we must embrace the wildness of co-creating with nature, and with one another.

Ava LightbodyAva Lightbody is a social and environmental justice activist and thinker, with a love for research, writing, the arts, and getting her hands dirty in the garden (or the kitchen!). She holds a Masters degree in environmental studies from York University, where she studied Aboriginal rights and the Canadian mining and fossil fuel industries. Ava developed and led garden programs at MacGregor Playground in 2016 for the Botanicus Art Ensemble in collaboration with community members and Parks & Recreation staff.

Botanicus Art Ensemble is a non-profit arts group - actors, musicians, designers, gardeners and story-tellers creating nature-inspired art with neighbours out of an urban park in Toronto, Canada. Their most recent park improvement project has been the creation of the MacGregor Teaching Gardens and in 2016, with funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation the BAE commissioned a feasibility study of the MacGregor Fieldhouse from DTAH Architects to support year-round community programs. To read this study and find out more about BAE projects please visit

To join us in planting and caring for the MacGregor Teaching Gardens in the upcoming spring please contact


Rusty Shteir - Botanical Women of Quebec in the 1820's

January 30, 2017 Meeting

Meetings are held at the Bonar-Parkdale Presbyterian Church, 250 Dunn Avenue, just south of Queen Street West. Arrive after 6:30pm and enjoy coffee and cookies while you check out the Hort library, chat, and ask questions!

RUSTY NEVER SLEEPS (With Apologies to Neil Young)

It was quite a coincidence that I spoke with this month’s speaker on January 12th. It was, for those who don’t know, Kiss a Ginger Day and Ann Shteir is much better known as ‘Rusty’ for good reason. That’s what her parents began calling her since “before I [she] was born”, she claims, when you could say they both willed their unborn child to be a redhead.

Despite being a Professor Emerita at York University, Rusty Shteir is anything but the other potential significance of her charming name. In fact, she’s quite energized by the task of putting together a workshop for York next year. And her unquenchable curiosity will keep her researching the topic she will be discussing with us, for a long time to come. That is, like much research interests and work, the focus often begins in one place—comparative literature, specifically German Romantic plant imagery—and takes many turns as she delves into her work about womens’ relationship to science and more specifically, botany.

As a young PhD student, she was excited to have grant money with which to travel to Switzerland to study the works of a male Swiss botanist/poet. But she was non-plussed by the daunting prospect of having to decipher his decidedly terrible handwriting in the depths of the country’s dusty archives, so she switched the topic to English women botanists when she happened upon a reference to their work. And that set the stage for a great part of her research since then, with all manner of twists and turns inside the broader topic… that is, the intellectual relationship, the experience, and the work of women in the intellectual field of botany. She began with European women and, as of ten years ago or so, her attention was drawn to the women working in Canada in the 19th century who discovered our plants, studied and documented them, and… well, she will tell us all about what else they did!

As for gardening, Rusty considers herself more of an inside gardener, but her work has clearly touched her deeply, for in her address to last June’s graduating class at York University, wherein she received an honorary doctorate of laws, she said,

“As I see it, knowledge of ideas and writings from earlier times is a springboard as we get our hands into the soil of our world, and use the tools of our own education to cultivate our gardens.”

She no doubt has lovely indoor plant gardens, but in her nearly 45 years in academia, where she is a respected scholar in the field of Women and Science, she also created the garden of graduate Women’s Studies at York, and has cultivated, nurtured, no doubt weeded, and helped raise to maturity a great number of students.

Please come out to learn about this fascinating field of research to add some depth to your historical knowledge of the plants of Canada and most importantly, the women whose work helped to establish it.

Maria Nunes


The Gift of Membership

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The Gift of Membership - Details

The Perfect Gift for Family and Friends: A Membership to The Horticultural Societies of Parkdale & Toronto

Only $20.00 for one year

  • Admittance to 8 insightful horticultural talks & meetings
  • Participation in field trips, the plant fair, and social events
  • Access to rare and unusual seeds, plants, plant materials, and the Hort library
  • A subscription to the Hort’s rich and informative newsletter 9 times per year
  • PLUS access to a wonderful network of gardening enthusiasts, green thumbs, and general plant nuts!


Be sure to add the name of the gift recipient, as well as their email address (if you have it), so that we can email them our Welcome Package including our calendar of events.

If you do not have an email address for the gift recipient, or if you would prefer to receive the Welcome Package personally so that you can print off a hard copy to insert into an envelope for gift-giving, please indicate this in the notes section below.

Any questions? Please email  

Name & email of recipient:
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November 28, 2016 Meeting and AGM

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John Alexander & Peter Kaellgren - Weird, Wild and Wonderful Carnivores, Parasites and Other Unusual Plants

November 28, 2016 Meeting and AGM

Meetings are held at the Bonar-Parkdale Presbyterian Church, 250 Dunn Avenue, just south of Queen Street West. Doors open at 6:30pm. This meeting will start earlier than normal - at 7pm. We are having a brief AGM to vote in our board and accept financial and other reports.  Arrive after 6:30pm and enjoy coffee and cookies while you check out the Hort library, chat, and ask questions!

In their quest to document wild orchids, John and Peter found many unusual and intriguing botanical curiosities. Peter (former ROM conservator) will share the plants’ characteristics and habitat, John (photographer, artist) the challenge to document and conserve them.


The immediate post U.S. election period is a time for reflection on much we Canadians hold dear. This is especially true of things that may soon disappear in our neighbour to the south. Take diversity. Only Ecuador and Mexico can boast a higher diversity per square kilometre than Canada—of orchids, that is! Yes… Canada, and Ontario in particular, is home to a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve which helps in the conservation of over sixty of Canada’s total of 70 endemic varieties. They are the wild and wonderful part of this month’s presentation.

The presentation, by Peter Kaellgren and John Alexander, will feature photographs of a dizzying array of orchids, and that doesn’t mean those specimens, cloned by the 1000s, that can be purchased at the supermarket. These two men are serious plantsmen who chanced upon orchids and consequently a community of experts (lay and otherwise), aficionados, and even the Bruce Peninsula Orchid Festival.

“Chance upon” is perhaps the wrong description for John’s relationship with orchids. He was first introduced to them in Fredericton by a grade 1 classmate whose family had a greenhouse full of them. In his teens he took an interest in photographing plants and trees, which grew into a career in photography. During their travels throughout Ontario, John and Peter, a retired Decorative Arts museum conservator who has developed a special skill in identifying flowers in the many forms they are represented, learned about Ontario orchids while exploring nature near the town of Purdon.

John and Peter have developed highly choreographed expeditions wherein John carries his camera and Peter, the ‘Sherpa’, carries the accessories, such as a sun diffuser and kneeler pad. Together they scour the trails they walk, each fixing their eye on one side, looking, not just for the sometimes minute blooms of our indigenous orchid species, but more often, their less showy, but uniquely identifying foliage. On the return, they maintain their gaze, which now falls on the opposite side of the trail. With a different set of eyes, together with a change in the way light falls, they are sometimes able to identify plants they missed on the first pass.

Such dedication has paid off in their having become respected speakers, not just at horticulture and orchid societies all over Ontario, but at conferences as well. This month they’ll share photographs of their discoveries and stories about the experience as well as the issues that these delicate plants raise. And that’s where the post U.S. election period comes in. Should climate change agreements be cancelled or brazen political disdain for environmental protection creep into legislation during the Trump presidency, it’s quite certain that these wild and wonderful plants might suffer. As to the weird ones—well, they won’t be any better off.

Maria Nunes


October 24, 2016 Meeting


Gayla Trail - Backyard Ethnobotany

October 24, 2016 Meeting

NOTE: Our meetings are normally on the last Monday of the month, however since Halloween falls on that Monday we are holding the meeting one week earlier.

Meetings are held at the Bonar-Parkdale Presbyterian Church, 250 Dunn Avenue, just south of Queen Street West. Doors open at 6:30pm. Meetings start informally around 7:00pm and the meeting starts at 7:30pm. Arrive after 6:30pm and enjoy coffee and cookies while you check out the Hort library, chat, and ask questions!

Gayla, of, will take us through the unusual plants she grows and the muriad ways she makes use of them - growing and foraging plants in urban spaces to be used as edible and medicinal foods, natural dyes, tools for art making, distilled floral waters (aka hydrosols) and so much more.


This month’s speaker first addressed our Hort nearly a decade ago and already then, she was showing signs of interest in unusual plants. She told me about growing a pineapple in a corner of her bedroom—and it produced fruit! Since then,’s auteur, Gayla Trail, has kept as busy as the pollinators in her garden.

Gayla has now written four books and recently launched a kickstarter campaign for her fifth book; she’s traveled far and wide giving talks on gardening and the topics that flow from that. Her most recent book is Drinking the Summer Garden about the various and creative ways we can eat and imbibe the fruits of our gardening labour. Her writing and photography have taken her to gardens and natural landscapes that have piqued her interest in the many intersections that plants have with our lives—from their beauty to their deliciousness, to medicinal uses, to the way they help us dress ourselves with scents (hydrosols), as well as clothes (made with natural dyes) and other creative adornments.

Gayla’s journey through the world of plants and gardens has always been fueled by an interest in the unusual and she will also speak of the unusual in our urban surroundings—or rather, how to make what we think of as unusual a part of our lives.

Maria Nunes


Dugald Cameron - Bulbs For the Small City Garden

September 26, 2016 MEETING

Meetings are held at the Bonar-Parkdale Presbyterian Church, 250 Dunn Avenue, just south of Queen Street West. Doors open at 6:30pm. Meetings start informally around 7:00pm and the meeting starts at 7:30pm. Arrive after 6:30pm and enjoy coffee and cookies while you check out the Hort library, chat, and ask questions!

Looking to find the most beautiful and unique flowering bulbs for his own garden, Dugald Cameron started Gardenimport. Now that it’s closed, he’s been travelling and enthusiastically photographing gardens. He’ll bring inspired suggestions for planting wonderful bulbs in your garden.