Canadian Horticultural Personalities
Lois (Mrs. J.R.M.) Wilson

 

For virtually a total of three decades of my life as a horticulturist, Lois Wilson was a huge presence. Through most of those years, I would hear from her at least twice a week on a multitude of subjects. From the early 70s she and I were both involved, along with garden broadcaster and writer John Bradshaw, on the Dunington Grubb Foundation. John was Chairman, I was the Secretary and Lois the spark plug, expediter, researcher and Vice Chairman!

Lois was born in the Maritimes and was proud of her background there. One had always to speak well of ‘the East’ or expect Lois’ wrath!

I first met Lois, I think, in 1963, less than two years after I graduated from The NPC School of Horticulture. It was at a Garden Club of Toronto Flower Show where she was in charge of some of the show gardens and the awards presentations, as I recall. She was elected President of the prestigious club in May 1965, but even before that, she had become known in flower arranging circles (in which the Garden Club members excelled) because of her book, Miniature Flower Arrangements and Plantings. At this point, I must say that she was very much at the forefront of her field, because the popularity of miniature arrangements only grew after the publication of that book. Today, regardless of what flower show you visit, you’ll almost always see a Miniature class, and each time I do, I think of Lois.

Lois, in addition to all her other interests, was a great worker in her church, Lawrence Park Community Church on Bayview Avenue just south of Lawrence. She spent hours and hours volunteering there, not just with flowers, but with any matter that became problematic. That work obviously lead to her second book, published in 1968, Flowers for Your Church.

Though, as I said, I knew her well, I didn’t get to know her at all until 1967 and 1968 when she was working on her third book, and doing the research for it. She would frequently call me at Sheridan Nurseries to ask a list of questions. Or, she would call J.V. (Bill) Stensson, our president, who would in turn refer the call to me! The book was for Chatelaine magazine and turned out to be a Magnum opus, at least for that time in garden publishing, and it was truly all-Canadian!

Chatelaine’s Garden Book (published by Doubleday) came out in 1970, and I was away for the launch party. However, I managed to see an early copy, I think through John Bradshaw. I gave it a quick look, particularly checking some of the topic areas where she had been asking me questions. Though she and I had never talked about lawns and grass, I happened to check that area because I had worked in that field for the first 16 months following my graduation from the NPC School of Horticulture. Lo and behold, I noted that in the section on fertilization a reference to urea-type fertilizers as all being extremely fast-release. In actual fact, there were and are two vastly different types of urea fertilizers that are (or at least were) used for lawns. The best known at that time was urea--the extremely fast-acting 0-45-0 that could easily burn a lawn if used too heavily, or applied in periods of drought. The other form, much newer at the time, was urea-formaldehyde (0-32-0).

John Bradshaw asked me to review Lois’s book for his radio programme and I did so live one Saturday morning. It was all positive, except, as part of an ongoing theme I did with him periodically, I mentioned how easy it is to have a small slip, which turns out to be a major error. And, I brought up the error with the urea, which we both agreed could easily mislead readers.

Well, to say the least, Lois was not happy! She called me on Monday morning to protest and defend what she had written in the book. She asked me did I profess to know more about this topic than her turf consultants. I tried to explain tactfully, that her turf consultant might well not have known about urea-formaldehyde because it was quite new in the field. I cannot say that she accepted that well, at least initially!

She also called John Bradshaw and challenged him to get other turf ‘experts’ on his programme who would ‘de-bunk’ what I was saying. John and I discussed the problem, and I agreed that was what we should do. He suggested he could get George Blais the chief technical person at C-I-L fertilizers (which company did not use UF in their fertilizers but who were well aware of its attributes) and I certainly concurred with that choice. I added the name of one technician I knew in the person of Bob King with whom I had worked at the Shur-Gain Fertilizer and Feed Division. Bob was one of the top people in the field in all of North America when it came to the various types of UF. On the sale of the Shur-Gain unit to a Montreal-based company Bob stayed on in an advisory capacity, and even in 2004 (after having retired three times from the Nutrite company) he and his wife are still going concerns, although using walkers or wheel chairs.

It did take a while, but eventually Lois accepted that I was correct, and she asked for a correction to go into any future editions of the book (of which there were about a dozen!).

Long after she was president of the Garden Club of Toronto, Lois remained extremely active with the Club. She had input on many of the activities, and both old and new members looked to Lois for sage advice when undertaking a new project. Through it all, Lois’ favourite Garden Club project was the Fragrant Garden for the Blind at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind on Bayview Avenue, just north of Eglinton, in Toronto.

Lois was the chairman of the original planning committee for the garden back in 1954 (she had joined the Garden Club in its inaugural year, 1947). The landscape architect for the garden was J. Austin Floyd and the project was completed at a cost of $21,000 and opened on September 6, 1956. The Garden Club (spurred by Lois, to say the least!) raised the money, some coming from private foundations.

The Fragrant Garden was one-acre in size and was conceived to provide scent, tactile and sound sensations to blind and visually impaired people, both those who then lived in the residences at the CNIB headquarters, and those who came to the headquarters building for treatments, information and consultations. There were 17 flowerbeds in total, and six of these were raised so visitors might easily note the scented plants. The trees and shrubs were originally chosen for the rustling their leaves would make in even a light wind, their ability to attract birds, and of course, fragrant flowers. The garden, right from the beginning, had a number of unique features. For example, one oak tree was grown from an acorn that came from Windsor Great Park in England, and was donated to the garden by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

The garden, of course, had rose beds, and was ahead of its time in that a pool and fountain were included. The late J. Austin Floyd was much ahead of his time in the use of pools and fountains even in smaller gardens. There were over 5,000 plants in the Fragrant Garden and many bulbs and annuals were planted each year. The predominant colour for flowers in the garden was yellow, since it is considered the most visible of colours. Yellow-coloured flowers were located along walkways and outlining small seating areas.

Right from it’s opening the garden has been operated by the CNIB, with its own budget. Peter Hoogeveen, who had great dedication to the garden, maintained it for years. I remember Lois citing his wonderful commitment to the garden. When Peter retired his son Peter Jr. took over the job.

The CNIB’s garden is quite well known internationally. When I was in Budapest, Hungary in 1974, following the international garden show (IGA) in Vienna, Austria that year, the Budapest parks director showed me various facilities including their garden for the blind. He said his designers had contacted “people in your city of Toronto because we were told the best such garden is there.” And, a similar thing happened when I was in New Zealand in 1983.

Coincidentally, it was in 1983 that Lois told me that she thought the Fragrant Garden needed a rejuvenation, and that she would work at getting the Garden Club to make it happen. That she did. In 1984 two Garden Club members did a garden survey: Dorothy Ross (a superb flower arranger I remember) and Margaret Dove (who wrote about gardening occasionally in the then Toronto Telegram) led to a decision to revitalize the garden in 1985. The restoration costs were $85,000, again raised through Garden Club projects (such as their annual flower show) and donations from private foundations.

Lois Wilson passed away in January 1993 and had suffered for a number of months in Sunnybrook Hospital, near her north Toronto home. In 1994 (I believe) a lovely Ivory Silk Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’) was planted, accompanied by an appropriate plaque, in Lois’ memory, within the Fragrant Garden. Absolutely a fitting place for such a tribute.

And so, I was quite sad to learn, in mid-2002, that the garden would likely be destroyed since the CNIB was eliminating the residences for the blind at the site, and that new construction would follow. My talk with Catherine Herman, CNIB property manager, brought to light the following. Beginning in March or April 2003, the old administration building, fronting on Bayview Avenue, was demolished to make way for a new building. That meant the rose garden disappeared. I understand that Garden Club members attempted to remove and hold some of the bushes over for future use. Then in late summer this year (2004), the rest of the garden disappeared as the balance of the land is developed into condos and upscale townhouses. Many of the plants were carefully dug and sold by the Garden Club. There was apparently a deal between the CNIB and the developer. Obviously, upscale townhouses on the rear ravine property at this very central site will be quite saleable! The disappearance of such a far-ahead-of-its-time and loved project is indeed sad; but there is the possibility a new, albeit smaller garden will be designed and built.

The latest word I have from Vertechs Design Inc. (Mary Jane Lovering, principal) the landscape architectural firm retained by the CNIB to design a new garden, is that the new garden is included in the plans for the new building, closer to Bayview Avenue. Vertechs have received the initial site plan drawings from Mary Jane Finlayson (Stirling Finlayson Architects) CNIB architects for the project. From the rumblings I hear, the garden is much smaller. At least (hopefully) there will continue to be a garden. If I meet Lois Wilson in any after-life, I don’t want to have to report that her favourite project was just abandoned!

Though Lois did little garden writing from the early 70s onward, she did remain interested in what was being published, both in the US and Canada. When I was active on the Board of the Garden Writers Association (of America) I made sure that Lois was considered in annual lists of those in the field to be honoured. In 1977, the Garden Writers made Lois an honorary member.

Lois Wilson’s great support through most of her life was her husband, Jack, who pre-deceased her, at their Bala cottage. Jack, when I first knew them, was senior and managing partner of the largest and best-known accounting firm, Clarkson, Gordon & Co. It was while I was working closely with Lois in 1975, that the federal government un-veiled Jack’s major “Report of the Independent Review Committee on the Office of the Auditor General of Canada”. It was generally referred to as the “Wilson Committee.” Still today one can see references to Jack Wilson as “intellectually rigorous and Canada’s most respected chartered accountant.” I believe it was in the late 70s that Jack was president of the Canadian Red Cross Society and he and Lois travelled a great deal, including as far as New Zealand.

There is ever so much more to be written about Lois Wilson, but this biography will give gardeners at least some idea of the accomplishments of this great lady!