How Sheila Clarke turns lemons into wildflowers
Updated: Jul 9, 2021
by Liz Primeau
You’ve heard the expression “When life gives you lemons….”? Well, Sheila Clarke is an expert beverage maker.
She also knows how to open doors, as when opportunity knocks.
Last spring (due to guess what), Sheila lost her job in marketing communications specializing in websites, the internet and graphic design, and suddenly found herself, as she says, “sitting around twiddling my thumbs” and wondering what the future held.
Suddenly there was a knock. "An opportunity came up to go to Humber College to become a horticultural technician,” she says. “I’ve always been something of a gardener, and interested in plants.”
The idea struck a chord. She applied to Humber, was interviewed and accepted, and signed up for the intensive fall course, 100 subjects that entailed 40 to 60 hours of study a week. But she realized she was still a relative gardening beginner, and—professional that she is—she decided she needed to spend the weeks before the course began, getting her hands in the dirt.
“I’ve always been something of a gardener, and interested in plants.”
“Gardening Girls in Oakville, which does maintenance and planting for people, was willing to take me on so I worked for them until my course started. I loved it. And I’m back with them now!”
That’s the lemonade part, and more of that later. In the meantime, Sheila’s mother met Jeanne McRight at an August garden show at Riverwood Conservancy and heard about Blooming Boulevards and the wildflower propagation program. She thought Sheila might be interested.
“I was, but I realized it had to wait till I’d finished my course,” Sheila says. “So I didn’t get in touch until January. Jeannie is amazing, and I signed on to the propagation program right away. At the end of February I picked up the plants and the supplies—the growing unit, the shelving, the seeds, the lights. And on March 7 I planted everything.”
Along the way, Jeanne conducted Zoom classes to instruct newbie growers how to sow the seeds, transplant the young plants and care for them as they grew.
Sheila grew about half a dozen varieties of wildflowers, including black-eyed Susan, anise hyssop, beardtongue and foxglove, planting the seeds a few to each small container and transplanting them once they’d germinated and reached a moveable size.
“It was exciting to watch these tiny plants come up, and nurturing them along every day,”
“It was exciting to watch these tiny plants come up, and nurturing them along every day,” she says. But once they’d reached a transplant size, decisions needed to be made. Should she sacrifice the smallest and weakest seedlings in favour of the more robust? Should she try to separate seeding twined together, or just save one?
“Sometimes I just planted the two together, so I expect there’s a bit of root competition,” she says. “And I confess some of the little guys passed on.”
Her propagation garden--four flats of seeds that turned into eight trays with 150 plants, was set up in the family's front room, once used as the dining room .
"But who needs a dining room any more? My husband and two kids and I eat in the kitchen these days. And I could close off the room--we have three cats and I didn't want them getting into the trays. I was afraid some of the plants might be poisonous to animals and I asked Jeanne and she paused and said 'Well, they shouldn't be eating them anyway..." She laughs. "And I said, 'Well, if they do....'"
By mid-May she was carrying the trays outside every morning and bringing them in at night to harden off the young plants, putting them in places where they wouldn't be damaged by garden animals.
The cats ignored the plants, and Sheila forged on. By mid-May she was carrying the trays outside every morning and bringing them in at night to harden off the young plants, putting them in places where they wouldn't be damaged by garden animals. "It's been exciting to watch these plants grow, but challenging as well, " she says. "Many times I found it difficult to know where I was at, and I wished there had been more of a group to talk to. I think that's the only thing that's missing from this program--a kind of a chat place, you know, where you could say there's something happening with my beardtongue and get some feedback. I want to do my best for Jeanne because she's doing such an amazing, amazing job and has some really ambitious plans, but she's really busy and sometimes not accessible."
Sheila solved her problem by joining up with several groups on Facebook , such as Ontario Gardener, Master Gardeners, Native Propagators and the Backyard greenhouse Meetup groups, all of which give her a sense of belonging. "If I have a question, I can usually post it on Ontario Gardener, say, and within five minutes I'll get 10 answers."
And here's the lemonade part: This spring, Sheila rejoined The Gardening Girls as a full-time lead gardener handling maintenance, a responsible job she feels she couldn't have filled if she hadn't done the Humber course. Her team visits two or three gardens each day, weeding, planting, and dividing perennials, or whatever the owner requires, in areas north of the city such as Rockwood, to Burlington, High Park, the Kingsway and more. "Recently it's been mostly spring cleanup, but last week we were in a garden where the whole front yard was lily of the valley in bloom. The perfume was incredible, but the plants had crept out past their rock border and our job was to dig them up and get them under control."
Weeds are Sheila's pet hate, and every garden has its own weedy evil. Some people regard lily-of-the-valley as a weed, of course, but in the right place such plants can be very useful. It's subjective, and it depends on the location. Even goutweed has its place, say on a hill in the country, where it can spread to its heart's content. "I saw another garden where the whole front was pachysandra and it was beautiful," Sheila says.
Gardening has awakened a lot of new things for me, and I don't think I'll age out of it. I think it will be with me forever.
But, of course, there's another lemon on the horizon that will surely turn into something sippable: the Garden Girls job lasts only until November, and Sheila has to figure out where she's going from there. "I was in marketing all my life and passionate about it, but I feel I'm easing out of it. Gardening has awakened a lot of new things for me, and I don't think I'll age out of it. I think it will be with me forever. It feels natural. Maybe I'll go on to another course, say at the University of Guelph, and explore urban or landscape design."
*Jeanne's note: Sheila has decided to be a Native Plant Propagator again for the 2021 - 2022 garden season! She has made it possible for 3 garden stewards to have gardens this year, and will do the same next year. Big thanks to Sheila and all our other wonderful propagators - you rock!