City’s only horticulturist works hard to beautify 46 public spaces

By Jamie Morris

It’s 9 a.m. at Victoria Park. Another hot, cloudless summer morning, so a picnic table in the shade of an oak tree in Victoria Park is a good place to be. It is in fact the perfect place to be to meet up with Megan Phillips, the City’s horticulturist. Megan and some of her six-member crew of summer students have some work to do in the park.

They aren’t hard to spot. A City truck pulls up and they all clamber out in steel-toed work-boots and fluorescent orange high-visibility t-shirts.

Usually, Megan would be working alongside the crew, but she’s agreed to make time to talk.

Before we begin she prepares them for their garden tasks. She works her way into the centre of a bed, pointing out what’s weed and what’s not, and identifying some bleeding hearts (“ephemerals” that die back and need to be trimmed).

The students unload flats of begonias and tools and begin dead-heading, pulling weeds, trimming, and filling in gaps with the annuals.

Megan, now 43, has always had a passion for plants. Growing up in Peterborough she helped her schoolteacher mom tend gardens during summer vacations. After high school she completed a Fleming apprenticeship program in horticulture, then studied at Guelph University.

That was followed by more than 15 years as horticulturist, landscaper, and greenskeeper, employed by nurseries, golf and country clubs and by Cavan Monaghan Township.

Then, eight years ago, the City hired her as its first horticulturist. “It’s been my dream job,” she says. “It’s hard to be employed year-round as a horticulturist.” (More about the “year-round” bit later).

So, what exactly are her responsibilities as horticulturist? Much more than Victoria Park, it turns out. There are 46 park spaces in the Town of Lindsay, and Megan is responsible for maintaining the annuals, perennials, and shrubs in all of them.

She also looks after any limbing and trimming of trees that can be done from the ground. (There’s an arborist crew that tackles the upper stories of the tree work and another that does grass mowing and trimming).

The day after we spoke, chain-sawing invasive buckthorn and overgrown shrubs at McDonnell Park West was on her list. Taylor, a crew-member on a co-op placement from the Fleming Urban Forestry Program, would be wielding the chainsaw under Megan’s direction. (Supporting the summer students is an important part of Megan’s job and much-appreciated by them. “It’s great having Megan as a boss,” says Taylor. She goes on, “Entering my field it is important to have a mentor, especially a female mentor.”)

There’s yet more to the job than parks, though. Megan’s responsible for plantings at all the other City spaces in Lindsay. Five are within a hundred metres or so of where we sit: the Armouries entrance way, the grounds of the Lindsay Library Branch, the Service Centre, the Paramedics building, and the Police Station. She names others that are unexpected — along the Ops Landfill roadway, for example.

Lots to be done, but at least once winter sets in Megan can put up her feet and flip through nursery catalogues or take vacation time, maybe head south and sip mint juleps, right?

Emphatically not. She sets me straight.

In early winter she’s planning for the following year, doing rough design drawings for garden beds, especially the showy display by the trains in Memorial Park (this year it was “Welcome to Lindsay” in three-foot floral letters) and ordering thousands of annuals for spring planting. She also helps the City arborists with winter tree maintenance.

But with the department reduced to Megan, two arborists and a lead hand, a lot of her time in winter goes to snow removal from City parking lots and ensuring access to cemeteries.

Spring means cleaning up gardens, edging, trimming, splitting some perennials, and prepping everything for the planting season.

Fall, once her crew are heading back to school, is particularly busy. She rips out annuals, tidies, mulches (nice to have arborist colleagues who can supply chipped cedar and maple). Always looking for efficient ways to work, she runs a lawnmower over some perennials in Rivera Park.

This is also the time to recover canna bulbs for use the following year and to plant spring bulbs. 

It’s 10:30 am at Memorial Park, where the train is.

We relocate so the crew can fill gaps in Megan’s biggest floral canvas. Good chance to talk about the challenges and pleasures of her job.

The biggest challenges are the sheer number of green spaces and demands on time. She has to set priorities. Highly visible, well-used parks — Victoria, Old Mill, Rivera, get more attention, particularly before scheduled events.

Some areas are beyond her control, like big-scale projects that are in the works and dependent on City funding. She’s aware, for example, that McDonnell Park (both sides of the river) needs a lot of work, and so is her boss, Ryan Smith, the Parks and Open Space Supervisor. The east side, by Wellington Street bridge, is scheduled for renovation this fall. There are also plans for the west side (below the Legion and north to Wellington), but it’s in the future.

Asked about pleasures of her job, top of mind is meeting and interacting with all kinds of people out in the parks — from grandparents with grandkids to the fellow with the red toque collecting beer cans — all enjoying our town’s shared green spaces. (One of those interactions was with me, on a fall day two years ago. I’d admired the canna lilies in front of the Paramedic building and as she was digging them up asked a few questions. She not only answered them but gave me a few dozen bulbs for the Lindsay Community Garden).

Of course, the work also allows Megan to pursue that passion for plants she developed during summers working with her mother. And there’s scope for creativity: she proposes designs, chooses colours and puts plants together in a pleasing way, ensuring there’s garden interest in all seasons.

And lastly . . .

Two parting questions for Megan. First, what advice can she offer to home gardeners? “Don’t be afraid to try something new. Have fun, change it up and experiment.”

Last, to be fair, what can we do for her? Her heartfelt request: Deposit litter in the trash cans provided. If you don’t it’s Megan who has to pick up after you. Year-round an inordinate amount of time goes to picking up trash (once snow retreat it’s the first job in spring). Less time on that means more time on the plantings that enrich our experience of the town.

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