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North Vancouver senior transforms local space

“There’s no one like you that could make a garden full of weeds grow.

“There’s no one like you that could make a garden full of weeds grow.”

That sentiment is among the many heartfelt expressions of gratitude scrawled by the hands of Brooksbank elementary students in a colourful, handmade card given to Gerry MacPherson.  The students sought to honour his efforts to transform an unruly, overgrown space adjacent to their school and Loutet Park into a beautiful garden filled to the brim with blooms, benches and walkways for both the school and greater communities to enjoy.

The card is just one of many given to MacPherson over the years, marking his birthdays, times of poor health, Valentine’s Day and wedding anniversaries, as he is a fixture at the space, referred to as Gerry’s Garden, and well-known within the neighbourhood.

Currently 96-years-old, Gerry and his wife, Molly, 87, have been living in the same North Vancouver house after moving to B.C. from Ontario in 1967. His decision to start work on the garden was made in 2007 after he and Molly lost one of their two sons, Jeff, to cancer.

“He was 47. There was quite a big chunk of property there you know and it was an eyesore, one heck of a mess, so I just chopped ’er out. It took a long time,” says Gerry, during a conversation with the North Shore News last week at he and his wife’s home, a few blocks away from the garden, located at Rufus Avenue and 14th Street.

“Ten years, morning, noon and night,” reflects Molly, on her husband’s decision to deal with his grief by taking it out on the weeds and clearing the area.

“He just felt that he had to do something when Jeff died pretty suddenly. I bake, that was my thing. That’s what I used to do and he would spend the time down there. He knew what he wanted to do for him,” she adds.

“It’s a memorial for Jeff,” says Gerry.

Despite the fact that he claims to have no gardening background – “The only thing I know down there is a dandelion,” he jokes – and highlights of his professional career include placer mining in the Yukon, working for Boeing helicopters, and running a marina with his brother in False Creek for more than 20 years, the site has been completely transformed for the better.

“What is was like before was impossible. It was a little path. … It was all morning glories and devil’s club and he cleared all of that out, by hand, by himself, and from one end to the other,” says Molly.

Over the years the weeds have been replaced by a variety of plants, shrubs, trees and other landscaping elements and the space has a more formal look, complete with trails and walkways.

A favourite component of the couple’s is a memorial bench and plaque honouring Jeff’s life that’s situated in the middle of the garden. When asked what their son would have thought of his father’s efforts, Molly laughs, “He would have been blown away. It’s too bad, he was a good guy. I still can tear for him,” she says, eyes welling up. “And he would have said, ‘mom, smarten up,’” she laughs. “That’s exactly what he would have said.”

The MacPhersons are grateful for the tremendous amount of community support they’ve received over the years, including from community members at large, staff and students at Brooksbank elementary, the City of North Vancouver, BC Hydro and local businesses, offering hands-on help, as well as financial donations and things like soil, gravel and bedding plants.

Gerry’s Garden, about a half-acre, is frequented by local dog walkers, cyclists and even horseback riders. Loutet Park and area trails attract community members, as does the Edible Garden Project’s Loutet Farm. Situated next door, the urban farm opened after Gerry started work on the space, and brings many people to the area as a result of its ongoing programs as well as twice weekly farm gate sales, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 6 p.m., on now through October.

Brooksbank school also uses the space, with teachers improvising classrooms in the green environs and other community members using the garden as the perfect spot for a stroll.

North Vancouver resident Howard Abel has been volunteering at Gerry’s Garden for the last few years. He got to know Gerry as a result of frequenting the space during walks with his girlfriend (and fellow garden volunteer Andrea Walters) and continually finding its creator there at work. “He’s just the most loving, friendly person. He’s just great to be around. You see that when he’s down there. That area is a real thoroughfare for people. ... Almost everyone seems to know him and wants to stop and talk to him. He’s just as much the attraction there as the plants and flowers,” says Abel, 52.

The fact that Gerry’s Garden is not only growing, but thriving still continues to amaze him. “There’s just a bit of soil and then hardpan underneath it. It used to be the area of the dump (a 1950s era landfill), I believe at one time. At any rate nothing should grow there, it’s kind of miraculous almost really,” he says.

Abel has recently started to take on more of a leadership role to assure the garden’s legacy into the future. “When I saw that (Gerry) wasn’t able to go down there as much, I just saw that somebody needed to step in,” he says. “I go there a couple of times a week instead of going to the gym, it’s just how it worked out. It’s been the last couple of years that I’ve been really there quite a bit, trying to stay ahead of the weeds,” he adds.

Another couple lending a hand are Sharon and Ric Erikson of Bee Friendly, a North Shore-based non-profit society working to promote the conservation and rehabilitation of native bee populations and their habitat (beefriendly.ca), speaking to a current focus of those involved, which is to plant bee-friendly plants to support pollinating insects and hummingbirds.

“Our food system is very dependent on pollinators so we’re doing what we can down there,” says Abel.

Despite the handful of dedicated volunteers and that Gerry still goes down to the garden once or twice a day to putter around, it’s a big job to maintain the space, so Abel is leading the charge in recruiting additional community members to get involved. This weekend, Saturday, June 18, he has organized a weed and invasive plant pull from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Coincidentally, the Gerry’s Garden volunteers will be celebrating more than just community spirit as Saturday marks Gerry and Molly’s 69th wedding anniversary.

Community members looking for more information on this weekend’s event or on how to get involved in Gerry’s Garden, can connect via facebook.com/gerrysgardenNV.

“The place is unique, there’s nothing like that, just a spontaneously made garden. It’s not a community garden where people grow their vegetables, it’s just a recovered area that’s been made into a really wonderful place,” says Abel.

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