Call of the wild: The conservation effort

Can you imagine choosing an abandoned railyard as a backdrop for your wedding photos? Not exactly the ideal place to capture that “Kodak moment”, you might say. But in Grandview, Manitoba, a once-bleak CN property has become one of the town’s best known beauty spots – thanks to Nettie Kitlar. This 76-year-old grandmother transformed the five-acre wasteland into a community garden after rallying to the cause local seniors, Manitoba Hydro, the town council and a national seniors organization.

The transformation is somewhat of a miracle, and the once-barren lot has come alive. Birds scratch for seeds. Bees buzz around the hanging baskets. Shady benches provide a pleasant respite for pedestrians. And yes, young newlyweds do choose to have their wedding photos taken at the park.

What’s more, this sort of rejuvenation is spreading across the land. The idea of senior citizens pitching in to improve habitat exemplifies what the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) hopes to achieve with Golden Gardens, a gardening program marking the International Year of Older Persons (IYOP) in 1999.

The CWF, with the assistance of the Canada Coordinating Committee of IYOP, is providing fundsf $100 to $500 for projects that create or enhance habitat for wildlife. That’s good news for gardening fans across Canada.

Since the program was announced in late February, Sandy Baumgartner’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. She’s the manager of programs and communications for the Canadian Wildlife Federation in Ottawa. “There’s been an exciting response,” she says. “We can’t keep up with the calls. There are over 100 a day.”

One group in Alberta will tap into the funds to create a pioneer species garden, she says. Another caller hopes to create a garden for therapy purposes at a long-term care facility. In Lunenburg, N.S., they’re planning a park around a plaque received from the United Nations, declaring Lunenburg a world heritage site as the best example of a British colonial city in North America.

“There are so many innovative and interesting projects in the works,” Baumgartner says. “Plus, there’s a tremendous demand for this sort of beautification.” Projects eligible for funding must be undertaken by “seniors” (the criteria calls for a minimum age of 55) and must attract wildlife, not just beautify the area. “The number one objective is to provide food, water and shelter for wildlife,” says Baumgartner. The funding enables groups to buy seeds, plants, trees, soil, lumber and hardware.

Golden Gardens also encourages seniors to link with youth organizations such as the Girl Guides or Scouts. “Bringing these two groups together so the young can learn from seniors’ wisdom and experience is a major objective,” Baumgartner says. “In this way the program establishes a spiritual legacy to accompany the living legacy set in motion when people plant trees and nurture gardens.”

And everyone’s encouraged to participate, in spite of physical handicaps. Even if you’re restricted to filling a pot with soil, you’ll feel healthier and happier for your involvement, says Colin Maxwell, executive vice-president of the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

A 24-page booklet provides 16 sample projects ranging in scope from a simple balcony garden to a wildflower meadow. “The trick to attracting wild species is to supply them with what they need when they need it,” says Maxwell. “It can be as simple as planting a shrub, erecting a nesting box and filling a saucer with water.”

Included are tips for “greening” the most challenging of urban spaces. If your front yard is covered with asphalt and surrounded by a chain-link fence, take heart. A six-inch strip of earth is all that’s needed to plant vines and native ground covers. “Sometimes wildlife gardening simply requires enhancing what you currently have or thinking a little differently about what wildlife you’d like to attract,” Maxwell continues. For instance, the addition of a 20-inch circle of sandy soil provides a dusting spot for birds, who flutter in it to clean their feathers and rid themselves of parasites.

In declaring 1999 the International Year of Older Persons, the goal of the United Nations General Assemble was to improve the independence, participation, care, self-fulfilment and dignity of older persons. Building a wildlife garden touches on three of those primary objectives: providing seniors participatory role in projects, self-fulfilment through recreation and the respect of their community for a job well done.

“It’s a project that can ignite community spirit and help preserve those old-style civic values that many of us grew up with,” says Governor General Romeo LeBlanc, Canadian Patron of the International Year of Older Persons. Three model gardens have been planted at Rideau Hall as part of this project, including the commemorative garden that greets visitors to the Governor General’s residence in Ottawa. The plan for that garden is included in the Golden Gardens booklet.

“Our feeling is that gardening is good for the body and encounters with nature are good for the soul,” says Maxwell. “Anyone being honoured by the International Year of Older Persons has been around long enough to have witnessed incredible urban growth. With such development comes a significant loss of wildlife habitat.” The Golden Gardens project gives back to wildlife some of what has been lost.