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St. Christopher House Courtyard Garden

The Beginning

I first saw St. Christopher House courtyard garden, at Ossington and Dundas Streets, about 1994, when Brenda Brandle and Bill Cheng were members of the Board of Directors there. It was a charming sunny enclosure planted with whatever small trees, shrubs and plants that could be found, germinated, divided or donated by staff and volunteers. It contained many common, easy-to-grow species like Norway maples, Austrian pines, a Siberian elm, spruce, mulberry, smoke bush, lilacs, forsythias, cedars, hydrangeas, Jerusalem artichokes, lily of the valley, feverfew, creeping bellflowers, periwinkle and orange day lilies. They all managed to thrive in the very poor soil, giving the garden colour.

That is how my garden partner Gloria Maguire and I found the courtyard when it became an official project of the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale & Toronto in 1996. Together with other Hort volunteers we made soil amendments, planted spring flowering bulbs and added more plants until Gloria moved to Winnipeg and I was joined by my new partner, Beth Smith. Beth and I carried on in a similar way, enjoying the camaraderie of gardening in such a tranquil place.

A Major Change

By 2002 the trees had grown considerably and it was apparent that they needed pruning, however, after an assessment by my friend Dennis Laffan, an arborist with Kelly’s Tree Care, the need was shown to be greater and more urgent than we had anticipated. Roots were girdling the maple trunks; the birch was dying from birch borers; tree trunks and branches that were too close to the building were damaging it; the trunk of the enormous Siberian elm was showing signs of rot and posed a threat to the building and anyone in the courtyard if it should fall. Thus, in the fall of 2003, St. Chris’s courtyard got its first new look. Dennis and four of his colleagues donated their services for the day. Dubbed ‘tree dancing’ by one of our members, it was a treat to watch the arborists high up in the tree branches demonstrating the skill and grace of their profession. Hort members dragged sawn branches and brush to the chipper and helped with clean up; new trees and perennials were donated and planted. St. Chris’s Executive Director, Sandy Birnie, expressed her gratitude by preparing a barbecue lunch for all the volunteers!

The courtyard looked fresh and clean and it has continued to be an oasis for the St. Chris community program clients, staff, fundraising events and the annual Hort Barbecue. Over the years, numerous eager Hort members and friends have volunteered their time in the garden by donating plants, giving consultations, mulching, pruning, deadheading, weeding, and planting bulbs and plants to keep the garden looking its best.

As of September 2011, the courtyard began another huge renovation, which will also include the outside strip garden that runs along Ossington Avenue, north of Dundas. This will all be completed for the 100thAnniversary of St. Christopher House in 2012!

The Concept

The idea of this renovation germinated and took shape over several summers in the Nova Era bakery, where Beth and I convened for refreshments and discussions after our weekly gardening visits to St. Chris. Over time, we observed firsthand just how the courtyard was used by the staff and clients and we talked about how it could be more accessible and useful for them. The deteriorating asphalt, in particular, was taking its toll. It was impervious to proper water drainage and led to excess water pooling, cracking and sinking of the pavement, creating a serious safety hazard and reduced usability. It also prevented water from reaching the roots of the trees, which has affected their growth. We came up with our wish list but did not know who would help us with it. At a meeting with St. Chris staff, I revealed our ideas for the courtyard improvements and, although our vision was embraced enthusiastically, St. Chris had no funds to undertake the renovation. In 2008 Beth moved to Leamington and ‘courtyard and Ossington garden improvements’ became a topic of discussion with my new garden partner, Maureen Whitehead.


Sometimes things are serendipitous. Maureen and I did not intend to be outside St Chris that day in 2010 pruning dying shrubs in the Ossington garden, but there we were when Hort member and acquaintance, Peter Woolcott of Algonquin Landscape Design, happened by and stopped to chat. Peter is interested in St. Chris because of its community work, so he was very willing to have a quick walk around the courtyard and listen to our ideas. Peter then brought his colleague, Josh Hollander of Hollander Landscaping, to see both the Ossington and the courtyard gardens. Peter and Josh decided to take on the St. Chris gardens. Patricia Thomson, owner of Kelly’s Tree Care, once again agreed to do the necessary tree removals and pruning. Key parts of the plan were starting to gel.

The Design

There was so much to think about and organize before the final plan could take shape. Important issues had to be taken into consideration: a level surface for walking and wheelchair safety; proper drainage of rainwater; the health of the trees; more usable patio area; no more grass; outdoor storage; garden irrigation; and funding. Hort member Christie MacFadyen drew a preliminary up-to-date map of the courtyard. St. Chris applied for and received a Grant. Generous donations would be given to the project to supplement what the Grant did not cover. Meetings and discussions between the professionals, Maureen and I and the St. Chris staff permitted Peter’s design to be tweaked to allow for details like storage for ladders, tools and patio furniture, a bicycle rack, bench seating, space for the barbecue and a temporary stage. Further discussions determined which trees to remove; which garden beds to eliminate; which to reshape; and where to plant trees and shrubs. Pavers were chosen. Underground utilities were located. New trees, shrubs and plants were discussed.Judy Whalen and I would take progress photos.

We had Peter’s design and the help of a competent team of professionals to ensure that it all happened! The asphalt, grassy areas and two circle gardens would be replaced by 3000 square feet of permeable paving bricks. Some trees would be removed and others pruned. Parts of the dry stone wall would be amended to become stone seating. New trees, shrubs and plants would be added.

Setting the Stage

On Friday, September 2, Hort volunteers, Diana BaxterJoe WhitneyChristie MacFadyenDavid LeemanMaureen WhiteheadEduardo BarnettCatherine Raven and I arrived in the courtyard to dig out and pot up plants from the garden areas that would be eliminated. Several hours of work had all the plants potted, watered and tucked up against the back wall of the raised bed where they can be mulched to over-winter. Naturally we retired to the Nova Era for refreshments.

Tree Dancing

On Friday, September 9, the arborists from Kelly’s Tree CareGrahamJenMark and Mark, arrived to begin their tree dancing routine. One of the two Marks had been part of the 2003 crew and was enthusiastic about his return engagement to the St. Chris ‘stage’. The show was just as exciting as before.

A well aimed, weighted ‘throw bag’ with the rope attached carried it high into the air and hooked it over a sturdy main top branch where it was secured. Arborists wear impressive tool belts that are tough enough to support their weight and also hang a chainsaw and other tools on it. Hooks and clips enable the ropes to pass through easily, connecting the arborist and making him one with his subject. Deft tightening or slackening of the line has him ascending effortlessly skyward to the topmost branches as if on a reverse zip line, hanging in midair or stepping lightly on a branch, as the need arises. Swoosh, whirr, zzzzz! Mark was up to the top in seconds. Click, vrvrvroooomooom, crack, snap. “Clear!” Mark called down to Mark, on the ground, who guided another rope line, secured to the big severed branch, so that it fell precisely where he intended. Thud! Vrrrroomooomoom! The chainsaw cut the thick branches into manageable chunks as quickly as if they had been butter. Sshhishishishish. Jen dragged the shorn branches to the chipper as the leaves rustled behind her against the asphalt. Some of the logs were quite large. Zheerree, crunch, crackle, ackackarack! Graham fed the chipper, a great hungry, noisy beast that chewed everything, large and small, and spat out a fine wood mulch that jettisoned into the back of the truck like a fountain. The audio was every bit as thrilling as the visual! Before I knew it three hours had passed and I was back to reality. Three mature maples, scraggly cedars, volunteer trees, shrubs and the dying redbud had been removed; remaining trees had been pruned. Tools had been put away and all was swept and tidy. The dance was over.

Layer by Layer

Hollander’s construction crew started early on September 12. This is how the experts made a patio. The asphalt came up first. It lifted easily in chunks and by the end of the day was merely a memory. They used bobcats to level the grassy berm. New garden shapes were marked and cut out as the soil around them was excavated to evenly grade the courtyard. The excavation was filled with ¾ inch gravel to a depth of about 12 inches to ensure good drainage, and then tamped down by machine. On top of that, a 2-inch layer of ¼ inch stone chips was laid and tamped again. Because water permeability is the important factor, all the gravel was clear to allow for rain and moisture to pass through. No limestone screenings, sand or other crusher run was used, as this would impede the flow of water through the installation. Now there will be no more water pooling, sinking or heaving and the water that percolates down will encourage healthy trees by nourishing the roots underneath. Next, the greyish-brown paving bricks were laid in a herringbone pattern and finished with a soldier course of pavers running perpendicular to the edge to define the garden borders. Finally, the small gaps between the pavers were filled with 1/8 inch stone chips. Et voila!

There is still more to come. The precast concrete seating sections have to be built into the dry stone wall and the wall itself will be extended. After the soil amendments, shrubs and trees will be planted and then perennials will be added. The outside garden along Ossington will also be re-landscaped. Scraggly trees and shrubs will be removed and replaced by new trees, shrubs and perennials. This and other finishing details will be the subject of my next article—the final touches that will be the icing on the cake for this huge and exciting project.

Although the concept for this garden renovation originated with Beth and me, it would never have happened without a lot of good people to fine-tune it and make it a reality. For their generosity we thank the Hort Society who has supported this garden for fifteen years; Kelly’s Tree Care Ltd. for professional advice and skilful tree services; Algonquin Landscape Design for the garden design that gave us way more than we dreamed; Hollander Landscaping for the creme of landscaping services; and Unilock for an unprecedented discount on the price of permeable pavers. Their expertise, ideas and dedicated hard work have created a garden that will nurture the emotional and physical needs of all who use it and will enhance St. Christopher House and the fine work it continues to do in the community after one hundred years!

Kathy Andrachuk