Interview with Gene Threndyle, Sept.25 2000. Gene has done most of the work on Dufferin Grove Park's native-species gardens. He also designed and built the park's marsh fountain, with money he raised from the Ontario Arts Council.
Who are you?
I'm an artist. I grew up on a farm near the village of Walkerton in southwest Ontario. But I've been living in Toronto for much of my life.
What made you interested in gardening in public space?
The artist Keith Haring got started in New York by painting empty billboards, so all the subway riders got to know his work without him having to jump through the hoops of the art establishment to get his work shown. I liked that idea, of just finding an empty space and putting something interesting into it. I was doing printmaking and installations, and to support myself I was doing people's gardens, and as I got more and more involved in gardening I began to move away from working through galleries. I got interested in the design of gardens and rather than sit around and wait for permission to do public art - sculpture in gardens, for instance - I just started to do it.
I live in a co-operative called Artscape, which has non-profit live-work studios for artists. There was lots of empty space around this building, mostly just sod laid down on hard-pack clay. I got together a sort of gardening committee, with me as the main member, and we put in gardens around wherever there was space, with interesting bent-wood fences and arbours. The building is right on Queen Street, and the gardens have become a local landmark. They're a mix of perennials and native plants and some vegetables - although people are reluctant to grow food there. There's such a paranoia about poisons in the soil in the city. I don't understand it. What makes people confident in the quality of the food that's grown thousands of miles away and shipped up here by truck? So at least I always put in a lettuce bed at Artscape. A few of the other people who live there take some for themselves, and I like that. There's always enough.
Was that your start in public gardening, then?
I guess so, although I was doing people's front yards for years as part of my landscaping work. If you go out into a front yard and dig or plant, lots of people come by and want to talk. Front yards are on the street, which means they're also public, and they draw people.
Another thing I did around that time was plant a bed next to the last remaining wall of the old Queen Street Mental Hospital. I thought if I planted things there the wall would have a chance of staying. A lot of people want to demolish it, but that wall is over 150 years old. It was built by John Howard; it was part of the history of this city. Just even to honour all those people who were shut in behind that wall I think we should keep it. But I think they're going to tear it down.
Then in 1995 Harbourfront got funding to do some artist's gardens. I did one of the gardens, and I was unusual in that I not only planted it, I also maintained it. There was money to hire people to plant the gardens but no one had thought of adding in money to keep up the gardens. But because I knew about upkeep they asked me to do another garden. Then for a while it seemed like the gardens were kind of faltering, until a few years ago they got some more funding and started expanding them again. That fund included money for maintenance. I've been working with them and being paid for that.
What brought you to us?
My friend John Benningen, who's a chef, came to the park because his friend Catherine was working with Clay and Paper Theatre, at the park field house. John ran into the bake oven one day, literally ran into it, while he was trying to catch a frisbee. He got really interested in cooking at the park, working with some of the young offenders who were there to do their community hours. When he heard that you had got some money from Canada Trust to plant native species gardens he came and told me about it. So I guess that's when I first came over to offer my help.
Had you done native gardens before?
No. When I work for people doing private gardens, no one would ever hire me to plant just native plants. But I had seen even out in the country how changed everything is, how lots of plants and trees are disappearing as the subdivisions wipe out the fields.
Still, when I hear people talk about "naturalizing" a park to make it look as though Europeans had never come here, it seems like a joke. I always thought it must be something an urban person thought up, as though people are not nature and so parks should be made to look as though no people were ever there. I think this line of reasoning must partly come out of the fact that lots of people are uncomfortable about cities, about their existence. You hear people in cities talking about "native species" in gardens and parks, but you didn't hear it much outside of cities, at least until recently. Now the idea is moving outward a bit.
When you started planting the native gardens in Dufferin Grove Park, you wanted the beds to be round. Why was that?
I thought round was realistic because of the park lawn mowers. But I also thought it was a natural shape - a lot of things in nature are round, many flowers are round, raindrops, and so on. It seems to me that round is the least pretentious. I saw a native species bed at the plant nursery near the Brantford Indian Reserve. That bed is a huge circle cut by a square, to signify the four cardinal directions. I thought, if they grow their plants in a circle, it's good for us too. I don't like the idea of making a flowerbed artificially look irregular, as though it had just appeared. That's impossible in a park where lots of people walk, and so it will inevitably look artificial, and pretentious.
Gene's website is www.genedigs.com