An oasis of green

by Maeve Haldane

During McGill’s recent convocation ceremonies, students put on their shiniest shoes, their parents beamed and McGill's two campuses offered no shortage of soothing greenery as a backdrop for all the pomp and ceremony.

Before those joyous families arrived for the big day, plenty of determined, behind-the-scenes work went on to produce the verdant grass and colourful flowers for the celebrations.

“Preparing for convocation is my favourite time, because you see the benefit of your work,” says McGill gardener Norman Lefebvre. “It’s beautiful!”

From the Roddick Gates to the Arts Building, baskets of red and white geraniums hung from lampposts, and cedars stood proud in boxes. Along Sherbrooke Street, hostas, ferns and daffodils bid a jaunty welcome. Lefebvre, a 20-year McGill veteran, takes pride in getting the downtown campus into shape to welcome its visitors, “so the initial look is one of natural beauty.”

Student after smiling student had their photos taken behind the University crest of vibrant red and white tulips in front of the Arts Building.

A convocation platform party making its way past the flowering McGill crest near the Arts Building.
(Photo: Owen Egan)

The funny thing about those tulips, Lefebvre explains, is that they’re usually gone by mid-May and the crest would be jubilant with red and white begonias instead. But because of our late start to spring this year, the tulips were still going strong when convocation began and it seemed a shame to replace them before they had a chance to fully shine.

Eric Champagne, hired as McGill’s first full-time horticulturalist in 2003, says the University has been providing a calming green oasis to the Montreal downtown community for decades. “You look at the campus and people cared about planting trees 150 years ago and we still do." Then, as now, people experimented. Champagne planted a showy paulownia tomentosa recently, then discovered through Sir John William Dawson’s memoirs that the legendary former principal had done the same more than a hundred years earlier.

The McGill Senate's Gardens and Grounds Sub-Committee, of which Champagne is a member, meets nearly monthly to discuss and approve of all things outside - from bike racks to benches to dog access. Brian Karasick, the committee's chair, says they’re also involved in seasonal concerns, such as the farmer’s market that they moved from the Three Bares fountain to the pedestrianized stretch of McTavish Street.

At Macdonald Campus, Peter Knox, BSc(Agr)’74, the supervisor of property maintenance, has been following the landscaping plan laid out by Don Graham in 1977, which allows for a clear view from the Macdonald-Stewart Pavilion, all the way down to the lakefront. Knox came to study at McGill in 1968 from Trinidad, where his British father managed a sugar estate, and stayed on to work under Graham, his mentor. “I’ve had a hand in planting many of the trees on campus,” Knox says, estimating roughly 500 in the last four years alone. He still consults with the retired Graham on tree placement.

Macdonald Campus is “blessed with lots of acres,” Knox says. Sixteen hundred in total, including roughly 12 km of roads and nearly 4 km of pathways. Mowers are primed to tackle 125 acres of lawn each week in summer.

Before all that green breaks out on McGill's campuses, crews have to deal with the fallout from all that winter white. The debris from the harsher months needs to be cleared away, including the salt brought in on car tires. Champagne’s crew preps the water truck, checks irrigation systems and readies the aerating machines and chainsaws. During the colder months, Macdonald's head gardener Jeanne Page tends to an array of flowers and plants in the nursery, such as the potted ficus trees that go outside in the summer.

Champagne says that pruning took on greater importance after the damage wreaked by the ice storm of ’98. Broken limbs make trees more vulnerable to disease.  McGill's gardening crews vigilantly prune trees, and trim shrubs.

Mulch is added to beds to prevent water loss and keep weeds down, compost spread where needed. Knox composted leaves and kitchen waste from Macdonald's residences and cafeterias for about 20 years, and now collaborates with the city of Ste Anne-de-Bellevue on their composting program.

Champagne gets a skid of a fungus-based natural fertilizer each spring. “It smells a little bit, but my guys don’t complain too much,” he reports.

Some colourful annuals cheer up a quiet seating area near the Redpath Museum. (Photo: Alex Tran)

Knox mentally anchors the annual stages of greening by what he calls “Judgment Days”: Founder’s Day, Convocation, and Homecoming, when the campus is flooded with visitors. The Remembrance Day ceremony is also huge, with dozens of vets coming in and an attendance of up to 2,000, thanks to all the local schools. The ceremony takes place where 44 red oaks were planted in 1931 for the fallen soldiers of the Great War.

Champagne keeps an eye out for trouble spots, like the shady front of the Bronfman Building, which suffers by being so near construction, pedestrians and dogs. He planted maidenhair ferns, hostas and trilliums there and all are doing well.  He’s a close observer of human traffic. The Stewart Biology Building's terrace was once a harsh concrete no-man's land - now greenery and benches draw in students. The Service Point on McTavish, another onetime "dead spot," was cheered up in a similar fashion. Now it's a lively area where people sit to chat.

After the Gardens and Grounds Sub-Committee added recycled-plastic picnic tables near the downtown campus's James McGill statue, the pleasant shady green area took on new meaning. “People can have a picnic party there now,” Champagne happily notes.

Pests, as all gardeners know, are a challenge. McGill opts for natural approaches. Page sprays dishsoap solutions, sometimes with rubbing alcohol, on plants, but she’s happy to let natural predators do the work - like when ladybugs and wasps feast on scaly white mealybugs. Sometimes she’s the predator, going on a weekly slap and squish of any munching bugs spotted on the roses.

Champagne keeps a wary watch on the downtown campus’s many ash trees, planted because they’re hardy against pollution. But now they’re at risk of being damaged by invasive emerald ash borers. Other pests killed some campus favourites last year, the beautifully blossoming long-established Oyama magnolias. Champagne keenly feels their loss, and is treating younger magnolias with Neem oil insecticide, and a lot of hope.

The terraced sculpture garden near the Milton Street entrance to the
downtown campus. (Photo: Alex Tran)

Champagne likes to have a healthy, biodiverse tree community. “We’re not going to be competing with the Jardins Botanique for the trees that we have, but it’s always good to get a variety of species.” In a small orchard of a ragtag group of fruit bearers on the northeast side of campus, Champagne planted a persimmon under the advice of the Jardins Botanique. Barely a twig at first, Champagne notes like a proud papa that it’s now taller than he is.

Karasick was pleased to have been one of those who approved last year’s planting of a serviceberry tree in honour of the late Brownyn Chester, BSW'81, who did much for the promotion of McGill’s trees through her campus tree tours and her booklet, A Leafy Legacy (available at Redpath Museum). Champagne says he often sees students sitting on her memorial stone, an informal bench.

At Macdonald Campus, Page is drawn to the largest trees. “They have a big life, I touch them and think how they have seen many people,” she says. She adores a 41-inch diameter ash near the Eco-Residence, possibly the oldest on campus. Along with a noble fastigiate English oak and a catalpa, it was formally designated a “Champion” by L’association forestiere de Québec and the Societe Internationale d’Arboriculture-Québec.

Funding is always a challenge. “The maintenance of trees is expensive,” Champagne notes, crediting former associate vice-principal (university services) Jim Nicell (now the dean of engineering), for ensuring funds for trees, and McGill's building and grounds manager Marc Dozois for recognizing the importance of the work that Champagne and his crew does.

They aren't the only ones who treasure McGill's greenery. When economics professor Mary MacKinnon died in 2010, she left money to McGill for landscaping what might be the University’s best-kept-secret courtyard, a triangle with benches and shrubs flanked by Doctor Penfield Avenue and the upper floors of the Ferrier and Arts buildings. The reservoir looms grandly above and iron fire escape stairs lead to little-known back entrances to the Ferrier and Arts buildings. Champagne says, “It’s cute, it’s not a big landscaped thing, but every year we add a little bit more.” He likes to keep her family updated on the garden’s progress.

When convocation preparation is over, the downtown crew turns their attention to the residences. The new alpine garden in front of Bishop Mountain Dining Hall is a balm to the Canadian soul with small pines, craggy rock, and low creeping flowers.

The catalpa tree in front of Molson Hall poses a clean-up challenge to the grounds crew each spring. It's something of a yearly tradition for departing students to adorn the branches with discarded running shoes and bras.

Such minor annoyances aside, Lefebvre says he loves his work. “Once you’ve done your job and see the product of your own labour, it’s very satisfying.”

Page agrees. “I like to work as a gardener because I am connected with God and creation.”