Native plant roots are deep for this Mineola couple
Updated: Jan 21
Member Profile: Marion and Gene Wilburn
By Heather Raithby Doyle
Blooming Boulevards usually profiles members who have been involved with the organization for at least a few months. The Wilburns are brand new members but we are doing a feature because they have a great back story as native plant pioneers.
Article in the Mississauga News by John Stewart, November 18, 2005.
In 2005 Marion and Gene Wilburn were featured in The Mississauga News for transforming their front yard into a garden featuring native plants. The house is in Mineola, a heavily treed neighborhood close to Mississauga’s vibrant Port Credit downtown. They replaced the staid 1950's foundation plantings and lawn with native plants such as coneflower, Joe Pye weed, dogwood, beardstongue, oat grass, obedient plant, black eyed Susan, and more. A new driveway and attractive paving-stone pathway running up the middle of the lawn brought street appeal and access to the new gardens on either side.
The Wilburns' native habitat garden in its full glory. Photo: Gene Wilburn.
“It’s been fun, educational, and very enriching,” said Marion at the time in the Mississauga News article by John Stewart. The couple had agreed to do a native plant demonstration garden for EcoWatch Mississauga, and horticulturalist Gabriele Davies donated her time to design and help plant the garden.
Gene recalls that time: “Some people would just stop by and chat, and when the article got published in the paper, people would drive by, and slow down and look at [the garden]. It was an oddity then." Even today some may find a lack of lawn unusual. But here at Blooming Boulevards we say “Welcome to the Club” as our members happily add native plants to their front yards and balconies, and enjoy the beauty, satisfaction and importance of bringing nature back to the city.
Funnily enough it was this very same article from 17 years ago that led to the Wilburns joining Blooming Boulevards. Murray Moore, board member of Blooming Boulevards, boldly knocked on the Wilburn’s door a few weeks ago to ask if they were the people featured in the story. The Wilburns, who have lived in the house for 38 years, said “Yes”. Murray handed over the old newspaper article, which he had found in his files. “I was happy to get the article and remember those times,” says Gene. Murray also mentioned the work Blooming Boulevards was doing. The Wilburns joined the next day.
Their native plant garden has dwindled over the years.The dogwoods are still there, along with wild columbine, sea oats, a treasured Jack in the pulpit in the spring, and hearty wood anemones. The woodland sunflowers still delight with their late summer blooms and visiting pollinators.
“For many years it was lovely, plants growing all over the place, they took well,” said Marion. But over the years a few plants spread aggressively, while others disappeared. Marion, who laughingly refers to herself a “May-June gardener”, admits she might have accidentally pulled out plants in the spring she meant to keep because it became hard to identify what was what. She now has a system of labeling the plants on a smooth stone to help keep track. The obedient plants and grasses along the road grew taller than expected, and blocked the view while backing out the driveway, so these were removed, and replaced with grass. A maple tree planted almost two decades ago grew large enough to change the light from sun to mostly shade. Marion attempted to tame the naturalized garden with a few cultivars and non-native plants but these now require water and more care which is not ideal for an aging gardener.
The couple is looking forward to a refresh, with Blooming Boulevards providing easy access to information, and finding native plants that are right for their site and easy to care for.
“I would like to put more native plants back in, now I understand a bit more, and can be choosier in what I would put in because we really do like the idea of attracting the bees and the butterflies,” says Marion. She adds: “ I like the idea of beautifying your place, where possible, with plants that are indigenous to your own area. Somehow it just feels right.”
Gallery of the native Southern Ontario wildflowers that have grown in the Wilburn's ever-changing garden. Photo: Gene Wilburn.
Both Marion and Gene were early adopters of technology in the early 1980’s and worked in the information technology industry. Marion headed up the Library and Information Technician program at Sheridan College. Gene worked in IT at the Royal Ontario Museum and Canada Life, and, now in his 70’s, still works updating curriculum for online security courses. Did this open-mindedness to new things contribute to their willingness to embrace native plants in a neighborhood of manicured lawns? Both Wilburns consider this, but say it is more their creative sides to which the garden appeals.
Marion is an artist, working mostly with watercolor, pen and ink, and acrylics and is fascinated by abstract. Her colorful artwork is displayed throughout the house. “When I think about it, my approach to my garden is similar to creating an abstract piece. I am attracted to non-representational, loosely interwoven colour, texture and form.” Gene is a singer and guitar player, as well as a passionate photographer, spending many hours in the garden with his macro lens, although he says jokingly at his age it’s easier to get down low to get the photos than it is to get back up. They have one son, an artist who creates digital music with synthesizers.
For the Wilburns, the world of native plants is both a physical and an intellectual pleasure. The couple reminisce about how they love nature hikes, watching birds, and have fond memories of Marion’s father who introduced them to his passion for the natural world. “The joy of discovery that goes along with learning is tremendously educational. I think it increases your appreciation for nature, the more you embrace native plants,” reflects Gene.
The garden offers Gene and Marion a chance to observe and learn: “What I love is the unfolding of the seasons,” says Gene. “If you get your native garden going, and things are working out well, your next study should be insects because they come to the garden and there are so many kinds of little wasps and bugs and it’s fun to identify them…. It’s a paradise for photographers: the leaves, the blossoms, and all the insects they attract. It’s just so fascinating…If you can go out and be still for a while, suddenly you start to notice the motion all over the place, things flitting about.”
The garden is “an endless pleasure,” adds Marion, “a wildness. You’ve got your own ecosystem."
Welcome, Marion and Gene, to Blooming Boulevards where you will find many kindred spirits.
Marion and Gene Wilburn in front of their winter-dormant garden, 2023. Photo: Heather Raithby Doyle.