Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Personal Touch in a Public Park

A Personal Touch in a Public Park
by Kathy Renwald

Published in the Hamilton Spectator 
September 1, 2016

  During this steamy, sweaty summer we all look for a place where we won’t get fried. It could be a pool, the lake or a park. The lucky people in the Kirkendall Neighborhood have the HAAA Grounds. The sporting history is deep at the Hamilton Amateur Athletic Association Grounds, home of the old Hamilton Tigers, the site of seven Grey Cup Games, and base for the Hamilton Hurricanes football team for over 30 years.
  Beyond the hurtling bodies, the HAAA grounds is a park, and many would say one of the best maintained in the city. It’s a public park with a personal touch.
  Drive or walk along Charlton Avenue West and beautiful flowerbeds weave underneath groves of Austrian pines. Begonias, daylilies, ferns and hostas nestle in soil as dark as coffee grounds. You can tell this garden is loved. Even driving by at the posted speed limit it’s obvious these beds are edged by a master. The line is sharp, the soil slants at what seems like an impossible angle, and weeds are forbidden.
  For several years I’ve made feeble attempts to find the gardener at the HAAA Grounds, but I searched too late in the day. The gardener, I was told, starts work at 6 a.m. So one sultry morning at 8 a.m. I knock on the door of
the pretty, brick HAAA building and meet Frank Liberatore. I barely have time to introduce myself and say how much I admire the gardens before he grabs a spade. “Let me show you how to edge,” he says
 Liberatore has been in charge at HAA for 11 years, and with the City of Hamilton for 36, “I rolled out the sod at Pier 4 Park by hand, he says, remembering the start of the West Harbour development. The HAAA Grounds has a running track, kids play area, and the field for soccer and football, with the intense activity it’s impressive that the gardens are so pristine.
  “It was never like this before Frank came here,” Arlene Laframboise says as she strolls through the park with her Basset Hound. Liberatore has popped inside to get treats for her dog. “He so nice to the dogs, and the park is immaculate. If you see litter or broken glass at night, by 7 a.m. it’s gone, we’re so lucky to have him.”
  Each spring Liberatore starts the season by putting 10 inches of new loam on top of the flowerbeds. It’s a necessity since the trees suck up so much of the soil and moisture. He cleans up the left over perennials, cultivates and waits for the annuals to arrive from the city greenhouse, before planting about May 24th. Through the summer the watering, weeding, cultivating, sports field maintenance and general cleanup continues. “I can cultivate and weed all the beds in about two-and-a-half hours,” he says. Though he has help from summer students, I could speculate that at age 66 he is working faster than most. “I still play soccer, but it’s in an old guy’s league.”
  Sitting on a bench in the shade of a locust tree is the best way to appreciate the HAAA Grounds. Kids laughter bubbles up from the playground, pleasant thunks drift over from the Hamilton Tennis Club, and dogs scuffle by hoping to see Liberatore with an outstretched hand.
  “I love my job,” he says looking out over the begonias in their fluffy beds and the Trillium Award he won last year.
In late fall he’ll leave HAAA for winter work, clearing snow at city hall, and shoveling it off the mountain access stairs, doing the physical work he enjoys. Then in February he’ll return with his meticulous ways to the park he loves where his two and four-legged fans wait for signs of spring.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A garden for all seasons

From Flowers to Foliage

Like so many gardens, it started with the planting of a purple-leaf sand cherry.
“Then we planted a gold-flame spirea and they both came back,” says Stephen Kostyshyn. It was 1997 and he and his wife Claire Kostyshyn were hooked.
  It was a time when perennials were hot, and the couple planted drifts of them in their small East end garden. Then the romance faded, the perennials needed dividing, and fertilizing and they didn’t have much appeal in the winter.
  “In 2010 we bought that statue Jing, and Claire decided he didn’t like being beside the tomatoes,” Kostyshyn says.
  So out came the tomatoes, in came Japanese maples, unusual evergreens and conifers, paths and fancy rocks. 
  In Jing’s special bed, he peers out over a planting of Japanese blood grass, daphne is in bloom at his back and a collection of stone cradles a tiny hens and chicks plant called Cobweb.

   “It’s a serene garden now, I like the simplicity of it,” Claire, who is also president of the Mount Hamilton Horticultural Society, says.
  They both like the new design, where special plants have space to breath. Scotch moss and the felty-leaved Geranium renardii form little islands of green in Jing’s bed, and a lovely dwarf Dawn redwood called North Light waves its soft yellow leaves in the slightest wind. Since the crowded perennials have gone, so have the snails and slugs that hid among the foliage.
  A walk through the Kostyshyn’s garden is like going on a treasure hunt. You must move slowly and be alert for little gems, like Tom Thumb oriental spruce. Packed tight with gold-brushed needles it will not grow much taller than your ankle in ten years.

“I always loved evergreens but I never had a real source for them until I met a couple of people from ORGS,” Stephen says. ORGS is the Ontario Rock Garden Society ( and once you fall under their spell you might find yourself trekking through the Czech Republic searching for puny pines.

  Now Claire and Stephen will pack their lunch and go on safari to Vineland Nurseries (, Lost Horizons ( in Acton or Whistling Gardens ( in Wilsonville, south of Brantford, to find the rare and the unusual.

  The pines in their garden are a revelation. A gorgeous, twisted beauty called Snow-in-Valley Japanese white pine swirls with the energy of a fireworks display, another Japanese white pine called Gin Setsu drapes over a stone lantern, and the pretty Ogon yellow-needled Japanese white pine has a graceful, slender form perfectly suited for a small garden.

  Though they push the limits of hardiness, the Kostyshyn’s choose their plants wisely and rarely lose a specimen. They have good soil, built up over the years with compost, and fertilize only when needed.
  Among the vibrant evergreens and conifers like the Golden Glow Korean fir, you can find flowers, but of course they are special too. A bright yellow alstroemeria called Sweet Laura blooms year after year. Most people know this plant also called Peruvian lily as a cut flower, but Sweet Laura is hardy. In a corner of the garden, in front of the bamboo fencing that screens the yard, the tiny flowers of Formosa toad-lily lean against a dwarf bald cypress to catch the sun.

  After the switch from flowers to foliage and form, the Kostyshyn garden has become complete. “You should see it under a blanket of snow,” Stephen says. Jing is happier too, without those tomato plants ruining the view.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bee Box builders in action...

Bees Need Your Help!

  Armed with hammer, nails, hooks and hollow tubes, 22 people cobbled together bee boxes they hope will become home to native bees. The production line took up every flat surface in the Environment Hamilton offices.

  “We can’t keep up with the demand,” says Jen Baker with the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club. The club, along with Environment Hamilton, and the Hamilton Community Foundation is offering the bee box building workshops, as part of the Pollinators Paradise Project ( Every time they offer a class, it sells out.
    Mary Johnston is cutting the hollow tubes where bees will lay their eggs, and pushing them into the small bee box. Though she has a good population of bees on her property, she liked the idea of doing more. “I’m interested in doing anything I can to attract bees and butterflies to my garden.”  Most of the people at the workshop had noticed a sad decline in all types of bees in their gardens. Loss of habitat is an obvious reason for reduced bee populations, and bee keepers are convinced, the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides particularly systemic ones have contributed to bee deaths.

  The bee boxes are designed to attract our native solitary bees. Solitary bees lead a solitary life, do not make honey, and don’t swarm or tend to sting. What they do that’s so vital is pollinate flowering plants. If you like to eat, then fostering a healthy bee population is essential. We all know the bumble bees and the honey bee, but the native solitary bees often do their work unseen and unnoticed. A third of Ontario native bees, including carpenter bees, mason bees, and leaf-cutter bees nest in wood, including hollow stems.
  Ron Roscoe is just about finished with his bee box. The former Hamilton Fincup says he has always had an interest in the outdoors, “I’d like to see more bees than wasps in my garden.”

  The bee boxes do best when placed in an east facing location, the morning sun helps warm the bees up for flight. The hollow stems from plants such as teasel, reeds, grasses, and Queen Anne’s lace should be packed tight.  If the bees do lay eggs they will block the end of the tube-a sign of success. Then it’s important the garden is home to a diverse selection of flowering plants to feed the bees.
  As the bee box builders were told by Stefan Weber, “Native bees need native plants.”  Weber of St. Williams Nursery and Ecology Centre ( suggested a variety of plants from serviceberry trees, to fall witch hazel, hepatica, lupins and evening primrose, to provide, food, cover and nesting material for native bees. St. Williams will be part of an Earth Day Native Plant Sale April 18th at the Royal Botanical Gardens Parking lot on Plains Road Burlington. It’s just one of several more events planned by the Pollinators Paradise Project.

  It’s also important I would add, to not be a fanatic about cleaning up the garden. Leave some areas where the hollow stems of plants sit undisturbed, and even bare patches where the bees that nest in the ground can do their work.
  Jim and Angie Small of Binbrook came in for the bee box workshop, motivated by what’s happening on their land according to Angie.
  “Our plants used to just be humming with bees, now if we see one we say ‘Oh my God, there’s a bee.’”