McCrae’s vol­un­teer gar­den­ers know when to nur­ture... and when to ig­nore


Guelph’s McCrae House gar­den­ers know when to nur­ture . . . and when to ig­nore

If you think you’re help­ing the vol­un­teer gar­den­ers at McCrae House by pluck­ing the odd weed or dead­head­ing fin­ished blooms as you pass by, well, just step away from the flow­ers.

They may be weeds by to­day’s stan­dards, where gardens are grown pri­mar­ily to be beau­ti­ful, but back in the day, the cot­tage gar­den had a greater pur­pose, and weeds were a part of it.

And like the mu­seum they sur­round, the gardens at McCrae House are de­signed to of­fer a glimpse of what life

was like in Guelph in the late 1800s, when Lt. Col. John McCrae was born in this stone house on Wa­ter Street, on the edge of the Speed River.

“Come and pull weeds in my back­yard,” says Har­riet Hull with a laugh. “But leave them alone at McCrae House.”

Hull is one of about 10 vol­un­teers who main­tain the gardens at this mu­seum hon­our­ing McCrae, a doc­tor and sol­dier re­mem­bered for his fa­mous poem “In Flan­ders Fields,” which he penned in 1915 near Ypres in Bel­gium. McCrae House, which is also ded­i­cated to First World War his­tory, holds nu­mer­ous events each year, es­pe­cially around Re­mem­brance Day.

The mu­seum had a par­tic­u­larly big year in 2015 when “In Flan­ders Fields” cel­e­brated its 100th an­niver­sary. In prepa­ra­tion, McCrae House was closed for six months while it un­der­went a $159,000 ren­o­va­tion.

New show­cases were in­stalled and changes made to the flow in­side the cot­tage. The pe­riod bed­room and din­ing room were re­moved as they told lit­tle about McCrae the man. Now there’s more space for more vis­i­tors and room to re­flect on the poem, which is promi­nently fea­tured.

The changes have al­lowed the mu­seum to tell McCrae’s story in a dif­fer­ent way, high­light­ing dif­fer­ent ar­ti­facts in the col­lec­tion and fo­cus­ing on McCrae the doc­tor, the writer and the sol­dier.

The ex­te­rior was also spruced up with a new walk­way and metal ar­bour at the gate. And even though the gardens around the house were al­ready well es­tab­lished, “there was a rush to have it ready for the cel­e­bra­tion,” Hull says. “We couldn’t get in the gardens as early or as of­ten as we would have liked. A lot of peo­ple went through the mu­seum that year.”

It’s not that the grounds are pre­cisely man­i­cured or im­pos­si­bly for­mal. Quite the op­po­site. There are times in the sum­mer when they might look sloppy, as if the vol­un­teer gar­den­ers had all gone on va­ca­tion at the same time. At such times, spent blooms have gone to seed, and stems sprawl across the ground from the weight. Dan­de­lions are left to thrive wher­ever they take root. And they all droop from the stress of a hot, dry sum­mer. But this is by de­sign. “This is dif­fer­ent from gar­den­ing at home. We keep these gardens the way Mrs. McCrae would have kept them,” Hull says. “It’s a whole dif­fer­ent mind­set.”

McCrae House of­fi­cially be­came a mu­seum in 1968 thanks to the ef­forts of the Lt. Col. John McCrae Birth­place So­ci­ety, and it be­came part of Guelph

Mu­se­ums in 1983. It is also a Na­tional His­toric Site.

But it wasn’t un­til 1998 when vol­un­teers in­stalled the his­toric gardens in an ini­tia­tive spear­headed by Dorothy Scott.

“It was nec­es­sary when I saw what the parks de­part­ment was do­ing,” said Scott in an in­ter­view.

“I saw sum­mer stu­dents leav­ing weeds and digging up plants. So I stormed in and vol­un­teered to be a weeder.”

Scott calls her­self an ama­teur gar­dener, but over the years has amassed an ex­ten­sive li­brary in her base­ment on gardens and plants from the era. She de­vised the gar­den plan and rounded up some vol­un­teers.

“I had to learn it all,” she says. “But that was the fun part for me.”

It’s also the hard­est part for new vol­un­teers, she says – to set aside mod­ern gar­den­ing sen­si­bil­i­ties and in­stead work the land like a pi­o­neer.

Wa­ter is drawn from a rain bar­rel. Seeds are col­lected and planted by hand or more likely left to self-seed. Crit­ter or other in­fes­ta­tions are han­dled in tra­di­tional ways with­out chem­i­cals or com­mer­cial prod­ucts.

“The peo­ple who work with me are so help­ful and so will­ing to go along with my crazy ideas,” Scott says with a laugh. “The peo­ple re­ally are the best part of this.”

In­deed, Hull notes that Scott, who is now in her 90s, rules the roost.

Hull had to get spe­cial per­mis­sion from Scott to add mush­room ma­nure to the soil in the plot of land she takes care of.

“The McCraes would have used ma­nure to amend the soil so we can too. But no mulch,” Hull says. “They never would have mulched.”

Val Har­ri­son, su­per­vi­sor of vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ences at Guelph Mu­se­ums, says Scott has been vol­un­teer co-or­di­na­tor for about 20 years.

“She has such en­ergy for our projects and she’s a great re­cruiter,” Har­ri­son says. “And the gar­den is such a good project for vol­un­teers. It com­ple­ments what we’re do­ing in­side.”

Hull says each vol­un­teer takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for a patch of the gar­den. Once they log 40 hours, they re­ceive a pass to Guelph Mu­se­ums. She says the team works to­gether in the spring and fall to clean up the gar­den and pre­pare it for the sea­son, but the rest of the time they work out their own sched­ules. Hull says she tries to avoid times when events are go­ing on at McCrae House, es­pe­cially out­door events.

While the gar­den fea­tures her­itage flow­ers that are quite beau­ti­ful and fra­grant when in bloom, cot­tage gardens were also a source of food and medicine for a fam­ily and of­ten had to pro­duce enough to get them through a win­ter. And they had to pro­duce enough seeds to do it again the fol­low­ing year. It would have been no dif­fer­ent for the McCraes.

“They would want the flow­ers to re-seed so they wouldn’t dead­head,” Hull says. “They wouldn’t have time for it any­way. And some of the weeds are ac­tu­ally ed­i­ble and would be used in sal­ads.”

Those were the days when bread was baked daily, when but­ter was churned by hand, laun­dry was scrubbed on a scrub board, and food had to be pick­led or pre­served if you planned to eat in the win­ter.

Life was hard, and busy. There was lit­tle time to grow flow­ers just be­cause they were pretty.

So it was com­mon to have a potager gar­den, Hull says – a com­bi­na­tion of flow­ers, veg­eta­bles and herbs. And al­most ev­ery plant would have been used for food, oint­ments, teas and flavour­ings in cook­ing.

At McCrae House, the front gar­den is shaped in a semi-cir­cle bi­sected by a walk­way and stairs to the front porch. The gar­den con­tin­ues along the side of the house with a veg­etable gar­den on the far side of the path. The back­yard has many large shade trees, and the mu­seum holds af­ter­noon teas and plays on the lawn in the sum­mer. There’s a his­toric-look­ing garage and former sta­ble used to hold equip­ment and some­times buf­fet ta­bles for pub­lic func­tions.

There’s an old pump by the back door that would have been the home’s source of wa­ter at one time. And there’s an out­house be­hind the stor­age garage.

“It looks like an old privy,” Hull says. “It doesn’t work, but you get the idea.”

As Hull walks through the gar­den, she iden­ti­fies the old­est plants and the abun­dant ones, and talks about how they would have been used in the kitchen.

There are hops, used as a yeast sub­sti­tute for bread; laven­der and lemon balm, used in sa­chets; scar­let run­ner beans and sweet Cicely, used as a sub­sti­tute for su­gar.

There’s a rose bush at the side of the house be­lieved to be orig­i­nal. There’s also a grapevine out back that dates back more than 100 years.

“The roots are ac­tu­ally on the prop­erty next door,” Hull notes. “We al­ways worry a new owner will re­move it, but so far no one ever has.”

There are bear’s breeches, mar­guerites, widow’s tears, lady’s man­tle and milk­weed left to seed. There are el­der­ber­ries and ser­vice­ber­ries and herbs by the kitchen door. And there are, of course, Flan­ders pop­pies through­out that are stun­ning while in bloom.

Scott says at some point in the prop­erty’s his­tory, Flan­ders pop­pies were planted along the side of the cot­tage, but the city had planted day lilies in the same place and

the pop­pies seemed to have died away.

But when the daylilies were re­moved to make way for the his­toric gar­den, up came the pop­pies again, she says. Ap­par­ently the seeds had been dor­mant but still vi­able.

“It was like a mir­a­cle,” Scott says. “We were so lucky with that. We saw it as a good sign.”

Wilma Honey has taken re­spon­si­bil­ity for the veg­etable gar­den. For a time it was mod­elled af­ter the his­toric Vic­tory Gardens, a move­ment that en­cour­aged cit­i­zens to grow fruits and veg­eta­bles to help the war ef­fort.

But the McCrae House Vic­tory Gar­den was dis­con­tin­ued once it was re­al­ized that al­though there was a tra­di­tion of grow­ing food for the war ef­fort dur­ing the First World War, the Vic­tory Gardens ini­tia­tive was as­so­ci­ated with the Sec­ond World War.

Last sum­mer they grew a va­ri­ety of veg­eta­bles, in­clud­ing pota­toes, car­rots, let­tuce, peas and beans. Honey says they do­nate pro­duce to the Drop in Cen­tre and the Guelph Food Bank.

“I don’t know so much about flow­ers, but I do know veg­eta­bles, so I’ve taken it on,” Honey says. “I know it seems crazy to give my time to the McCrae gardens when I can barely keep up with my own, but I en­joy it. I like that I can give back to the com­mu­nity.”

Hull says most of the McCrae gar­den­ers feel the same way. She’s in­volved with the Guelph Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety’s gar­den tour and helps main­tain mul­ti­ple other civic gardens in the city.

“But I keep learn­ing,” she says, “and there’s lots to learn.”

Har­ri­son says the gar­den is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the time and not 100 per cent au­then­tic to the era.

“We’re not try­ing to re­pro­duce a his­tor­i­cal gar­den,” she says. “We’re tak­ing as­pects of his­tory and giv­ing a nod to the time pe­riod.”

Be­side McCrae House is the John McCrae memo­rial gar­den, with for­mal paths and hedges that form the shape of a styl­ized poppy. It is main­tained by the city.

Un­til the vol­un­teer gar­den­ing pro­gram be­gan, the city also main­tained the gar­den im­me­di­ately around McCrae House.

“They were beau­ti­ful,” Har­ri­son says, “but a his­tor­i­cal gar­den was al­ways part of the plan. We re­searched plants and seeds and got started. Many of our vol­un­teers are ex­pe­ri­enced gar­den­ers, but many vol­un­teer so they can learn about it. The McCrae gar­den is con­stantly chang­ing.

“It’s a labour of love for our vol­un­teers, and you can re­ally see that in how the gar­den looks. They have the green thumbs, and we all ben­e­fit.”

The house, at 108 Wa­ter St. in Guelph, is where the au­thor of “In Flan­ders Fields” was born.

LEFT: A strik­ing stone en­trance­way leads into the John McCrae memo­rial gardens, ad­ja­cent to McCrae House. ABOVE: Har­riet Hull is one of the vol­un­teers who tend to the gardens that sur­round McCrae House.

Some rose bushes are be­lieved to be orig­i­nal to the McCrae House.

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