By Peter Small
Luke Plourde has lived in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood for 40 years and has lost 87 friends to the AIDS epidemic.
He has seen a once vibrant gay community increasingly taken over by condos, with sparse green space set aside. This summer, he decided to do something about it.
He noticed a largely uncultivated patch of land behind a chain link fence at the northeast corner of Alexander and Church Sts., across from City Park Co-op where he lives. It seemed a perfect place to plant a garden to honour his fallen comrades.
“There's so little left of the village that there was during the ‘80s in the ‘90s and the 2000s that I wanted something to remain that I could look at and think of my friends,” he says.
After several unsuccessful attempts to locate the owner of the property, he came across Ahmad Zamany, manager of Salon One next door, doing some gardening on the property.
Plourde proposed creating a garden at his own expense. Zamany liked the idea. He checked with Salon One’s owner, Philip Nazaruk, who has use of the land through his business lease. He too was enthusiastic.
“We were really excited about it,” Nazaruk says. “We said, ‘Help yourself and do what you want to do.’”
So, starting June 8, Plourde spent a straight two weeks pulling weeds and replacing the soil, which was almost entirely sand and clay. All summer he has worked at least four hours a day, every day, weeding, digging, planting, tending and watering to bring the patch to life.
He lay a stone pathway with rocks he dredged from a river in Fenelon Falls. He purchased a statue of cupid at a market in Aberfoyle. His mother gave him a birdbath.
In fewer than two months, he created an English-style garden made up almost entirely of perennials, some suited to the sun, others to shade, with different flowers constantly coming into bloom.
“Gardens are living things that are always changing,” he says.
The community’s reaction shocked and surprised him.
“So many people of all ages have come by and said to me how it touches them,” he says. Some just stop and stare. Others take photographs. Children bring him rocks for the garden. Parents bring their kids to teach them the names of the flowers. Even landscapers come by and pay him compliments.
“The whole neighbourhood seems to have fallen in love with the garden,” he says. “It’s made it all worthwhile.”
Plourde has come to an agreement with the salon's operators that he will not officially call the garden an AIDs memorial, because they do not own the land.
But for him, every plant brings departed friends closer, and this has touched older members of the gay community.
“They love it,” Plourde says. “As soon as I mention that I’ve done it for my friends, some of them, they cry. Because everybody from that time lost a lot of people.”
Among the plants, purchased at his own expense, are hostas, hydrangeas, astilbe, begonias, sedum, clematis, wisteria, black-eyed Susans, roses, irises, Cardinal flowers, Japanese windflowers, crocosmia, flox, lilies, coneflowers, echinacea, foxgloves, delphiniums, chrysanthemums, flowering cabbages, peones, anemones, Japanese grass, goat’s beard, false sunflowers, bee balm, lavender, trumpet flowers, a limelight tree and a Japanese snowball shrub.
The 63-year-old information technology specialist for the Ontario government estimates he has spent more than $2,000 of his own funds so far, which is what he would have paid for a vacation had COVID not intervened.
“I’ll add more things next year. I just ran out of money,” he says.
For him, the garden is his bit of sanity after a stressful day at work.
“It's amazing what happens when you put your hands in the earth. It calms you down,” he says.
Plourde comes by his love of gardening honestly. As a child in Brampton, he helped his parents, who were avid horticulturists. He says he is grateful to the people behind Salon One for their unwavering support, allowing him to do what he likes with the garden and, at least in his mind, dedicate it to friends past.
“I wanted something to remain of that time, of that era when I was younger,” he says. “And so I wanted to build this garden as a symbol of that, as a memorial. For to me each of these flowers is one of my friends. That's how I look at it in my mind.”
"Greening the Village" is an occasional series recognizing individuals and groups who volunteer their time to beautifying our neighbourhood.