I took a tour of the greenhouses at the London Civic Garden Complex in my city of London, Ontario today. It’s an annual open house event sponsored by the Friends of the LCGC in which you can go and tour the greenhouses, usually closed to the public. Despite living in London since the 1970s, I had never actually been there before and it was fascinating. We were greeted at the doors with our choice of a potted herb to take home with us. I chose the pineapple sage. I’ve never seen that variety of sage before and it just smells so good!
Next, we were given a tour of the greenhouses and conservatory. The original greenhouse was built in 1922 with subsequent additions including the Manness Conservatory in 1985 and 1996. The current London Civic Garden Complex was funded through a cooperative effort of the city of London Parks and Recreation department, the London Garden Club, and the Manness estate. I learned some really interesting things about the greenhouses. First of all, I never realized how multi-purpose they are. I had always assumed they were basically a tourist attraction for the city but they do so much more than that there. First of all, the greenhouses are staffed and run by city of London employees, volunteers from the London Garden Club, and students from Fanshawe College who work there as part of their studies. In fact, the LCGC is the home of the London Garden Club.
The plants, flowers, herbs, and vegetables that are grown there serve several purposes:
a) they provide flowers for local schools as part of an initiative to encourage them to green up their schoolyards and include children in the process so that they can learn about gardening at the same time
b) they grow plants for a balcony greening program in which plants are given to tenants of low income housing so that they too can have a beautiful garden space in their homes
c) they grow herbs and vegetables to donate to the Grow a Row program of the community gardens project in which volunteers are asked to grow an extra row of vegetables to then be donated to the city food banks
d) they provide hanging plants, planters, and garden plants for all city properties throughout London – city hall, the John Labatt Centre, Storybook Gardens, and so on.
e) they participate in a program dedicated to preserving heirloom plants and seeds so that these particular varieties never become extinct.
What’s more, apparently, in some places in the city they like to display tropical plants that are not a part of our usual environment, so not only do the greenhouses provide a safe haven for these plants to winter over, but they also offer that same service to city residents who can bring some of their own plants there to winter over as well.
The way the greenhouses function was very interesting as well. It runs on hot water, not steam. There are two boilers – one for running the greenhouses on a day to day basis and a second one as a backup as it would be disastrous if the first one failed without something to take its place. The pipes for the hot water run overhead for heating the air inside the greenhouses and underneath the tables to warm the soil and the seeds when first being planted. There are snow sensors in the roof – they sense any snowfall and heat up to melt it right away, which given the crazy weather of rain, snow, icy rain, and hail today, we got to see firsthand.
Our city has bylaws that prohibit the use of pesticides (although there are some exceptions for agricultural uses) and the complex tries to use only natural methods when caring for the plants they grow and they promote these methods to their visitors. Our guide said that at certain times they will “release the beneficials” into the greenhouses – meaning that they will release helpful bugs that can control some of the issues they may have with the health of the plants. She told us that they also have turtles living in the greenhouses – the turtles eat the bugs and this helps to keep the proper balance of them as needed. They also collect rainwater to supplement their water supply and have large tubs in which they place the water, allowing it to stand for a while to release the chlorine and other chemicals that could harm the newly planted delicate plants. In the one room where they start the seedlings, our guide, Sarah, told us that to water all of the plants in the room takes over two hours!
Finally, the Garden Club had a sale of plants going on to raise money for the complex. I couldn’t believe the prices! Nothing was over $5 and that price was only for quite large plants. Most of the plants were $1 each. I’m not really much of a gardener but I’d really like to spruce up my yard so I’m going to try to learn and do a bit of gardening this summer. I bought a variety of herbs which I love to use for my gourmet cooking and some geraniums because I just love the appearance of them and have had success in growing them before. I’ve always felt a close connection to nature and I realize more and more that it is a great inspiration for my art. It doesn’t always come out in terms of me creating nature themed items but certainly in the colours and textures I use. This summer I hope to create a bit of that inspiration right here at home.