Friday, October 23, 2015

Margaret, David and a Handy Hollow Leg

Margaret and I kept crossing paths. 

By chance, I found a seat next to her at the Garden Writers Association luncheon at Canada Blooms last March. As we nibbled away at our plates of assorted sandwiches and cold salads, Margaret and I chatted. 

There was something so familiar and comfortable about this woman. I think it was because she reminded me of my mother. It wasn't that Margaret was a similar age. Nor was it the silver hair and light frame that both she and my mother had in common. There was something else, something much more subtle.

It wasn't until much later that I learned of the common bond that Margaret and my mother shared. Margaret has a son coping with mental illness, and in my mother's case, it was her youngest daughter.

The next time I ran into Margaret was on a Toronto garden tour. It was mid-June and the sweltering heat had begun to make the tour feel more like a marathon. Already I had seen one too many gardens where the swimming pool was the most impressive feature!

As I rounded a corner, who should I see but Margaret looking as fresh as a daisy! "She's 88 years old!", I grumbled to myself, "How is she managing to do all this walking?" 

A vivid blue Morning Glory growing on Margaret's garage.

The next time Margaret and I crossed paths was at the Garden Blogger's Fling closing dinner. I was standing in the midst of assembled bloggers enjoying posh, bite-sized hors d'oeuvres and glass of white wine when I saw Margaret motion to me from across the room.

"How is your health?", she asked when I took a seat beside her.

On the surface of things, I wasn't unwell, so I knew what she was politely asking about. She was questioning my weight. Maybe it was the party or perhaps it was the large glass of wine that made me feel open and generous.

"Well, I suppose I could be thinner", I said handing her the key to the door she wished to open.

This lead to a lengthy conversation on the subject of one of Margaret's great passions: food and good nutrition. Margaret's a Vegan (no meat and no animal products such as eggs and dairy).

"I hear from passersby what a pretty garden I have," says Margaret.

The following week I trekked into the heart of Toronto to see Margaret's garden. She lives off Avenue Rd., on a narrow tree-lined street that does not feel like it is anywhere near the epicentre of Canada's largest city. The houses were once modest family homes, but these days, they are prime Toronto real-estate.

The backyard is shady, but Margaret's front of the house is sunny, so this is where she planted this year's crop of tomatoes.

Also at the front are several Heuchera, Russian Sage and one of Margaret's favourite roses: the Fairy. 

"The Fairy roses at the front of my south-facing garden are my most successful plant. Japanese Beetles, which decimate many roses, do not touch these small pink blooms," she says.

Margaret's took this photo with her i-pad.

Taken from the vantage point of a second story window, this photograph shows the back garden in a nutshell. In the foreground is a small flagstone patio. Beyond it is an expanse of lawn with flowerbeds around the perimeter.

On the left is a garage designed by landscape architect Victoria Lister Carley. Just in front of the garage is the seating area shown in the next image.

While it does have a few splashes of color, the garden's palette is predominantly quiet.

"The garden at the back of my house is green and white, a color combination that is peaceful and calm. Reading about the white garden at Sissinghurst inspired me to use white flowers," she says.

"Chartreuse and purple have crept in as gifts, recommendation, or my choice."

" I like the gentle activity of gardening which takes me outside with nature."

Margaret says, "Hostas are my favourite plant with their never-ending variety. In a shady garden they work well, although I don't like the holes that the slugs make. As soon as the little hosta nubbins peek through the earth in spring I spray them with one part ammonia and nine parts water, a solution which stops those little critters dead in their trails. And if I see holes later on, I'll spray the whole plant with the solution."

"I bought this much-admired cement birdbath from a neighbour's garage sale for $3."

Leafy green shade plants like this Lady Fern, Athyrium (above) and the Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa (below) fit in perfectly with Margaret's minimalist color scheme.

Once I had taken pictures for my blog, it was time to return the favour and take a few photographs for Margaret. She wanted a photo taken with all her favourite garden helpers that she could use on her own website.

Margaret disappeared into the garage and came out a few moments later sporting gloves, a sensible hat, apron, a bucket with handy pockets for tools, and a long bag strapped around her waist with an adjustable belt.

I started taking pictures, but began to think that people might wonder about the bag hanging off her hip. What makes sense in real life, can become mysterious shape in a photograph. What was that contraption anyway? I suggested she take off the bag for a few of the shots.

"But I wouldn't want to take it off," Margaret protested, "It's one of my best tools! It's my Hollow Leg!"

Then she proceeded to demonstrate.

Out came a beak-shaped set of pruners. Snip. Snip. Snip. Each pruning passed quickly from her hand to the Hollow Leg without any need to bend or move further. I could easily see how someone might find this to be a handy, back-saving device.

Over bowls of creamy squash soup, I finally had a quiet moment to ask Margaret about her son David's illness. At 22 years of age, while studying computer science at university, David was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"I had a job, but I was so consumed with David's devastating illness that I couldn't focus on my work and so I resigned," Margaret recounts, " I spent the next five years trying to make sure he took his medication and kept his appointments with his psychiatrist. And, at times, trying to dodge the orange juice which he more than once threw at me in our dining room."

Before I sat down to write this post, I read through some of Margaret's own blog posts. I was struck by this passage which spoke to her garden as a place of refuge:

" My favourite spot to get away from the world is behind our garage. Here, hidden from neighbours and family, I can listen to the fountain reminding me of the sound of the water rushing over the stones  in the creek behind the house of my childhood. I can look up through the pine needles to the blue sky. When David was first diagnosed with schizophrenia, this is where I mourned."

That last word really hit me. Mourned. It represents a pretty powerful emotion. I thought of my own mother's reaction when it became apparent that her youngest daughter was seriously ill. Mom was devastated, that I do remember.

Mental illness is a tough diagnosis for any mother to face. Seemingly overnight my sister reverted from a young woman, about to gain her independence, back to a dependent child who would need some form of care all of the days of her life.

The good news is that my youngest sister is doing great. I am so proud of her! She has her own apartment and even manages to hold down a job. Still, my 91 year old Mom worries endlessly about her future. Sometimes I think it's her concern for my sister that keeps my mother's heart beating. Mom can't face leaving my sister behind.

In Margaret's case, I think it's probably the same worries for David that keeps her going. Knowing you're needed has a way of keeping you young.

More information and Links:

The Gardener's Journal began as a calendar that David used to keep track of his medications and doctor's appointments. Looking for a project on which they could work together, Margaret and David transformed it into a journal and resource guide for all things gardening. The newly released 2016 edition marks the Journal's 24th year. The book has five sections: Journal, Garden Plan and Records, Photos, Delights and Disappointments, and Local Source Book. You can order a copy by clicking the link above.

        You too can own your own Hollow Leg. Here's a link.

Here's a book Margaret recommends, "I like the What Plant Where Encyclopedia published this year and edited by Lorraine Johnson who is beyond knowledgeable and smart. As the back cover states, "Planning your garden has never been easier."


  1. It is wonderful that Margaret and David created the garden journal together. And it is very impressive that it is 23 years strong! The garden is a great place for spending time together. The hollow leg is the coolest thing I have ever seen. I know so many older gardens that have quit gardening because of having bend up and down and it causes a lot of joint pain. Margaret's garden is beautiful. Jennifer, your story telling is wonderful and I'm so glad that your sister has persevered over her illness. Have a wonderful weekend.

    1. The hollow leg link is broken but I was able to find it on amazon.

    2. Hopefully the link is fixed now.

  2. Thank you for such sharing such a wonderful story about your chance meeting with Margaret. It made such great reading.

  3. She sounds like a lovely lady - I like the simplicity of her garden and her philosophy. The garden is obviously a great solace to her.

  4. Hello Jennifer girl !
    This was an amazing post about an amazing woman .. I think every gardener feels their garden is a source of refuge. I have been using mine as just that but perhaps the over zealous work I am doing is not the greatest therapy for my body. My father died last week ... and their is a lot of emotional mind fields that it has carried with it. I am determined to work through it as much as possible .. but I can't stay in the garden forever .. snow will be falling and that will surely evict me.
    It is such a heart breaking situation for a parent to deal with .. but the reverse is terribly true too.
    My mother was mentally ill all her life but back in those days there was little if any help.
    My brother, sister and I suffered for it immensely .... I didn't garden back then, but I did find solace in nature.
    Back to your post ... this solution of ammonia and water wow ! .. it doesn't hurt the hosta at all ?
    I am totally interested in using it next year !
    Thank you for this post ... it was done beautifully !
    Take care
    Joy : )

  5. Such a powerful post Jennifer. In so many ways. Her garden is so beautiful in its simplicity...I can see how it became her refuge. Thank you for bringing to light a very important topic. I have several friends who struggle with mental dear friend's family started a clinic here in Chicago for inner city kids who suffer from mental illness but have no resources. Your post about Margaret just shows how important the garden is in the healing process. I hope you are well friend....Nicole xo

  6. What a beautiful post, Jen. :o) I met Margaret at the Fling and was amazed at her energy. I really liked her. I hope I'm that vital when I'm her age. I'm glad your sister is doing well. :o) We do mourn when life throws things at us that completely change the mental image we had for ourselves and our lives.

  7. This shows us that living our lives respecting nature provides us with a happy life. A wonderful post Jennifer, thank you !

  8. Margaret and her garden are truly an inspiration! What a poignant post, yes mental illness is a terrible thing . I often think mental health is still in the dark ages in terms of treatment and understanding. I have a brother with serious mental health problems and it is heartbreaking to see him suffer

  9. Jen, your post and Margaret had me wondering about my health too. Wow I need to get moving more. 88 and she is going strong. I love her philosophy and her garden is beautiful. And I agree with her about Fairy roses...they just keep blooming even through the cold right up to a freeze. I am also glad to hear about your sister....that Hollow leg may be my next birthday present!

  10. Interesting post, Jennifer. I think Margaret is a truly gardener and very careful mother. Love your photos of dahlias, hostas, herbs in her garden.

  11. She is one remarkable woman, with seemingly never failing energy of someone half her age. That hollow leg looks amazing...and tempting for those days when the hands just can't gather it all together.

    What a beautiful garden she has, I can see why she finds refuge in it's beauty.


  12. What a fantastic lady, in so many ways. Thank you for sharing her story and her garden.

  13. What a truly remarkable lady ... but they are around, you just need to know where to find them!
    So inspirational - and the hollow leg - well it's perfect.

    All the best Jan

  14. What an inspiring lady! She reminds me of the mentor I had when I first became a Master Gardener--in her early 80's, she could outwork all of us. Dealing with mental illness is not easy, and too often other people don't understand how devastating it can be for a family. My hat is off to Margaret and your mother for finding positive ways to deal with it. Gardening really is therapeutic.


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