"It all started with rhubarb," Maureen Lalani laughs, as she remembers how her career as unofficial gardener for St. Stephen's United Church began.
"I belong to the United Church Women's Group at St. Stephen's," she continues. "We bake a lot of pies that we sell to raise funds for our church. Of course, we usually have to buy the fruit to put in the pies, and I said I could grow our own rhubarb on the church grounds. Someone said they thought the soil was too poor for anything to grow, but I thought, 'Well, I could at least try.'"
Seven years on, Maureen is not only successfully growing her rhubarb, she has succeeded in encircling the bare, unappealing patch of blacktop behind the church, located at 54th and Granville in Vancouver, with a colourful and varied border of flowers and ornamental plants. Despite chronic problems with arthritis, Maureen has done this almost single-handedly.
St. Stephen's wasn't Maureen's first "found" garden. When she and her husband lived in an apartment in the Marpole area of Vancouver, on her own initiative, she planted flowers in the neglected area between their building and the sidewalk.
"All the people on the block called me the flower lady," says Maureen. "It cheered them up. Even people in the apartment building opposite would come over to tell me how nice the flowers looked."
Maureen had to give this garden up when the couple moved to Richmond, so she directed all her efforts to improving the one at her church.
"I asked the church if I could have some topsoil, and they paid for two yards," she says. "Someone helped me spread it out, and I planted flowers all around the car park. One side was a particular challenge because there were large cedar trees growing. Not only was it dark, but the roots of the trees sucked up all the moisture, leaving the ground very dry."
Undaunted, Maureen found ways to help shade-loving plants get past the roots of the trees and establish themselves. She is particularly pleased with the two variegated laurel bushes thriving there now.
"The gold of the leaves shines in the darkness, as do the white calla lilies and the white impatiens I plant in the summer," she says.
Continually working to improve the soil, once a week she brings, in her shopping cart, a bag of tea leaves, egg shells, and peelings collected in her own kitchen to place in one of her five compost bins. The gardener hired to care for the church's lawn adds grass clippings and leaves as well. When the organic matter decomposes, Maureen spreads it out in the beds. If she is lucky enough to be given manure, she spreads that as well.
"One year, I went down to the beach in Vancouver and gathered two big black bags of seaweed," she says. "I took it home on the bus and washed it in my bath tub to get rid of the harmful salt. Then I put it back in the bags, took it in my shopping cart to the church and worked it into the soil. I must say the soil is much improved from when I started."
Besides the flower borders, Maureen cares for the church's Memorial Garden, an enclosed area where members can arrange to have their ashes buried if they choose to be cremated after death. A peaceful spot, the plants that grow there are chosen carefully to promote a serene, contemplative atmosphere.
Once gardening season begins, weather permitting, Maureen makes the hour-long bus journey into Vancouver from Richmond almost every day to tend her flowers. During dry periods, she often spends five hours at a time just watering.
Maureen is strictly an organic gardener. "I'm afraid of chemicals," she says. "You can do more damage than good with them."
Not all Maureen's time is spent in her garden. Since 2007, she has acted as secretary of the Richmond Garden Club, and this spring, on her small balcony, she propagated dozens of plants to donate to its yearly sale. She also volunteers as a shopper for shut-ins, filling orders that have been phoned in to a local grocery store. And, because she is as passionate about animals as she is about gardening (she and her husband share their living space with two demanding and entertaining cats), every Friday she works at a shelter run by the Richmond Animal Protection Society.
Though her efforts require a great deal of energy and stamina, it seems St. Stephen's garden offers as much to Maureen as she does to it.
"Being out in the fresh air lifts my spirits, and seeing things grow gives me a kind of excitement. And flowers cheer people up."
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