Walk along Bilton Laneway today, with its diverse beds and lush planters, and it’s amazing to remember it as we first saw it, in its pre-garden, junk-dump state.
We first encountered and wrote about this tiny strip of public space three years ago (Bilton Laneway: Transforming Orphan Space) and we’ve been following its transformation ever since. It is a casual and informal spot conceived and initiated by Suzanne Long, a tenant whose apartment overlooks the laneway. It is still in process, as all gardens are, but as plants and beds are beginning to mature, and the planters donated by the local BIA are filling out, it is becoming more obviously a garden. As the local CIBC bank manager said when he walked through and saw that the plantings extend farther than just the small area behind the bank parking lot where he parks his car, “Wow this is really becoming a place.”
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He has since committed on behalf of the bank to donating two red Muskoka chairs, which will provide a hospitable seating area in the shade. At the moment they have been purchased and assembled, and are sitting inside the bank ready to be installed in the laneway.
“I feel like the chairs will turn the tide,” says Suzanne. “The chairs will cement it. If you walk down there you will know that this is a place. It will make it easier to draw people into it.”
What does it take to make this happen?
This is what Suzanne Long has taken on and how she’s done it so far:
“It started when our city councillor Joe Mihevc mentioned the naming of the laneway to me one day at the Wychwood Farmers’ Market. I knew the Bilton family as a kid and was keen on the name. Supporting that name led to finding out that it was public land, which made the garden idea possible. All my work wouldn’t have happened without Joe. He was accessible and made it a priority to support the laneway from day one. His office staff was helpful and made it easier to get things done.”
Once the idea of turning the laneway strip into a community garden took hold, there was a daunting amount of work to do.
“At first it was just my friends. I’d ask groups of my friends to come out… and neighbours, friends and neighbours and people I worked with. So we had a couple of work bees. Then a few friends who had gardens or plant access were helpful in contributing plants. And then other people got involved with the compost – getting the city compost on local environment days. In 2017, after a neighbour put up signs and we talked to people, 45 people came out for the laneway cleanup. I kept in touch with them via emails.”
“Whenever I needed something a small group of friends managed to get it to me – they gave me the things I needed when I needed them. A tree-pruning saw, yard waste bags, advice and answers when I was nervous about plantings, a long-handled shovel, a flat of seedlings grown just for the laneway. They gave me the confidence to do what I wanted to do. Every single one of them thought, ‘This is a really cool project and I think it’s a great one for you.’ And whenever I mentioned it everyone listened. It wasn’t just me putting in all the effort. It was me, when I asked for help, getting it when I needed it.”
“And now what’s happening is that people come out when I’m there – they know it’s me and they look for me. Sometimes I see from my window that people are out looking for me. This is the time of the year when people want to get out – when it’s sunny but the heat hasn’t started. And people are out walking in the laneway – the other day two women walking in the laneway said, ‘I’ve been wanting to find the person who’s been doing this… I want to bring some lily of the valley.'”
Turning Bilton Laneway into a true community place has entailed first making it an inviting spot. Fostering relationships, building interest and participation, enticing with the surprise of an edible nibble of strawberry, tomato, herbs, raspberries…. And it has meant that Suzanne sharing the vision and making visible the tasks to the people who live near it. Many neighbours are interested and have volunteered, but it’s not always obvious to others how to help out or participate, so she devised some inventive communications, such as chalking the fence.
She also has to let people know what is growing there, and invite them to use it. In these semi-shady conditions Suzanne has tried planting various fruits, vegetables and herbs, seeing what will survive. All the beautiful hand-lettered signs have over time been stolen, so chalk is once again the medium of choice (or necessity.)
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She has been teaching the skills to local kids and novice gardeners. She’s acquired and stored the tools, solicited donations, overwintered cuttings, started seedlings indoors in spring, and watered and watered and watered. A huge amount of dedication and a great deal of labour have been expended.
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“I didn’t want it to be my agenda at the beginning, I wanted to see what other people would make of it. But I don’t think something starts unless you impose your agenda at first and then…. The real trick is in drawing back, pulling back and letting other people move into it. It’s figuring out how to let it go in a way that I’ve planned enough so that when I hand it off it will take off and I won’t care. I mean, I want to care but I don’t want to control it.
“I’ve been making inroads. I know people and have volunteers in all the apartment buildings, and people on Relmar Rd. (detached houses) are totally into it. Now more and more neighbours are bringing seeds and small plants, asking if they can garden too. One woman bikes with her boy to school down the laneway each morning and this morning they stopped to look at the raspberries. She asked if she could plant garlic. Another neighbour asked if I could help her learn to grow sweetgrass and white sage. It’s a process – slowly things are coming together.”
The evolution of the raspberry patch
“Raspberries are what first drew me to the laneway,” Suzanne says. “I remember tasting a black raspberry I found growing there years ago. Never saw one again, but when I mentioned it to someone whose yard backs on the laneway where it had been, she said that she had red raspberries growing there. And that’s how I knew they would grow in that spot. Hers all died when she rebuilt the fence and I thought, OK they’re coming back.” The soil was amended with lots of city compost, and then Suzanne set out plants donated from friends’ gardens.
Edibles add another level of interest in a garden, and the anticipation keeps people constantly checking for ripeness as they walk by. Kids love to pick them and pop them into their mouths. One peril of gardening in an alley – that first winter someone who can’t have realized that this was not a weed patch dumped wood there and then dogs found it a good spot to relieve themselves and no one picked that up.
The following spring there was a thorough clean-up and more compost and donated plants replenished the patch. A few raspberries were harvested by neighbourhood kids last summer. This year, edging was added using pruned tree limbs, and chalk signage now identifies the plants. Some protection over winter with cut branches and sticks is in the plans, as well as more permanent labelling. Anything can happen out there, but right now the plants are healthy and in bloom, so more delicious fruit is anticipated.
And on it grows…
“It’s my dream to sit out here on Sundays early in the morning and have a coffee when it’s quiet and peaceful and just look around and check out the plants,” Suzanne muses. She is sitting out under a tree in an old wicker rocking chair salvaged from the curb and miraculously still here weeks later.
“I want to think of events that would draw people in. Tenants are becoming more permanent – apartments used to be a way station but now who can afford to move? I would love to see a neighbourhood dinner with a long table extending down the laneway, but that’s far off.
I want to get a green fence growing, try to put vines all up through the fences.
I need people to water. These are the things that need to be done – have different people take responsibility for a planter, a watering day, intermittent muscle jobs, compost runs, whatever…. I need to make it easier for people to take on tasks on a regular basis.
I want to have a bulb planting event out here in the fall and ask the bank workers to come because then, while they are out there every day on their break, or out for a smoke, they’ll know where to look for the bulbs next spring – they’ll know where they’re planted.”
The first laneway harvest of 2019 has already been picked and enjoyed in salad.
“When the chairs are there, when people are meeting up or just spending quiet time themselves sitting there, out of that will come things that I wouldn’t think of, that I can’t predict. Maybe those people who are using the space will have another idea that I wouldn’t have. There will be different things.
Everyone’s been waiting for summer – things are just going to explode soon. Every morning when I go out and look I think oh man, things are going to look really cool here any minute.”
Photos by Suzanne Long
What a wonderful story of a community making something beautiful initiated by a thoughtful and caring citizen!
Debbie Nyman, Toronto
Can’t wait to visit!
Angie Van Damme, Toronto