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  • Writer's pictureJeanne McRight

Meet a member: How a boulevard garden took flight in a pandemic

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

by Liz Primeau

Above: We welcomed Ron and Eileen Orenstein as new Blooming Boulevard members and were delighted to help them install a pollinator garden this spring. Photo: Adrienne Marcus Raja.


For a fascinating chat on the birds and the bees, as well as butterflies, dragonflies, plants and all manner of botanical beings, I recommend a visit to Ron Orenstein and his wife, Eileen Yen, two of the newest members of the growing Blooming Boulevards' community, who live on a pleasant suburban street in north Mississauga.

It's unusual to find them at home. They're usually traveling the world, often on cruise ships, where Ron gives talks focused on the trips' destinations ("I have one on the Peruvian guano trade, if you're interested," Ron says with a chuckle), or attending international conferences on wildlife conservation, or perhaps researching material for one of Ron's books. He's written eleven; the most popular so far is Hummingbirds. Right now he's working on a twelfth, on orangutans, but this research is being done at home. Because of the pandemic, of course.

Usually it's a peripatetic life, with part of the year spent in Mississauga and at least a couple months at their home In Malaysia, where Eileen hails from.

The couple met at a conference in Curitiba, Brazil, in 2006. Ron was representing the Humane Society of the United States and Eileen was with the government of Malaysia. "And we've been following each other around the world ever since," says Ron, a well-known zoologist who also holds a law degree. The creatures of the natural world have been part of his life since he was a boy, especially the conservation and biodiversity aspects. Since the mid '80s he's also been involved with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and was instrumental in getting a ban passed on the ivory trade in the late '80s.

"My background is very different," says Eileen. "And my connection to plants happened in a very funny way. I taught linguistics at university in Malaysia, and at one point I was asked to work with a colleague from the science faculty on a project on environmental awareness. I gave the presentation at a national conference, and the next thing you know I was seconded by the government to do public awareness!

"Later I became director of the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, but I was involved with policies and management, not plants. We'd go into the forest with the botanists and zoologists to meet with indigenous people, but I didn't plant or propagate. That's what they did."

 

Life has changed over the past year. Ron and Eileen returned to Toronto from Puerto Rico March 13 last year after a cruise was cancelled, and Eileen soon realized they were stuck here and she had to focus on something. She decided to try gardening, but by then it was May and there was a scarcity of plants.

"So I Googled..." she says, "and I found Blooming Boulevards. But we were too late for last year. Jeanne said we had to wait till this spring for a garden." Ron, the IT guy in the family, hit the internet again and found many home sellers of seed, especially for native plants. Like any enthusiastic newbie, Eileen put them all in the ground right away, expecting a big crop for her new garden.

"It wasn't very successful," she says. "Some anise hyssop came up, but that's about all. Then I learned about stratifying. I didn't know you had to stratify the seed to make it think it had overwintered, and then they'd grow!"

"This spring it was successful, all right," says Ron. "The whole house was full of sprouting seeds."


Above: Ron and Eileen with Jeanne, installing native plants from BB in their new boulevard pollinator garden. Photo©2021 Jeanne McRight.


In May this year they put in a Blooming Boulevards bed in a special place in the front. So far the wildlife in the area hasn't bothered it too much, except for a couple of bunnies who love the varieties in the composite family. "They've ignored the blazing star, and the black-eyed Susan, and they don't like anything in the mint family, or the butterfly weed," says Ron. 'We have deer not far away, lots of squirrels and chipmunks and deer mice, and quite a range of birds.

"In fact," he says, "this spring a bird showed up in Shalebank Hollow Park near us that breeds in Siberia and winters in Malaysia, a little greenish bird called the yellow-browed warbler. The first time seen in Ontario! It caused quite a stir. There were crowds of birdwatchers wearing masks, and I kept wondering when the police were coming to break us up."

Well, I like birds, too, and I had to ask how this little fellow got so lost.

"Birds are fascinating," says Ron, warming to his subject. "They have lots of internal systems that help them determine how to get where they're going--hearing, landmark recognition, the sun, star patterns, magnetic fields--and birds that show up wildly out of range are usually young birds on their first migration. One species, the bar-tiled godwit, lives in Alaska and eastern Siberia and migrates to New Zealand, and we've just recently discovered they do this in one continuous flight--- about 11,000 kilometers. Some hawks and eagles take a different approach--they fly around the Mediterranean so they don't have to go over the water. They fatten up like crazy, maybe put on a third more weight so they can do distances. Then they lose it on the flight.

“Dragonflies are very successful long-distance fliers, too . We see the wandering glider here in Ontario, but it's also seen all over the world. There are reports of thousands of them flying over the Indian Ocean. We all know about the monarch, but the painted lady is actually the world's most widespread butterfly. They're remarkable--they've been seen flying across the Sahara."

I'm hooked. I could listen forever, but it may be time to get back to the subject at hand.

 

"I have plans to extend Jeanne's Blooming Boulevards garden," says Eileen, who has become a devoted gardener who trades plants with passersby, just as gardeners do in Malaysia. "We don't have nurseries there, it's a different lifestyle." She hopes to collect enough seeds from Jeanne's plants to extend her beds, and eventually take up the whole front lawn. Native plants are perfect for their lifestyle: they don't require rich soil (It's like gardening on the moon here, the soil is terrible," says Ron) and they don't have to be tended every day. "They're pretty self-maintaining," says Eileen.

She's a conservationist at heart, just like Ron, even if she's come late to stratifying seeds. "A few years ago people in Malaysia lived in the forest and used an infinite number of plants. Part of my job was to create a database of the plants as medicinal, edible, etc. I was always involved in documenting, but now I'm hands-on," she says.




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