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Rhodo move a historic moment

Few people can claim the distinction of being able to elevate the profession of growing plants into the realm of conservation. For Alleyne Cook, however, conservation of rhododendrons is just part of his life's work.

Few people can claim the distinction of being able to elevate the profession of growing plants into the realm of conservation.

For Alleyne Cook, however, conservation of rhododendrons is just part of his life's work. Cook is a past supervisor of parks for the City of Vancouver and he is credited with establishing the Ted and Mary Greig Azalea Walk and magnolia collection in Stanley Park. Cook was also responsible for transplanting large numbers of rhododendron species into VanDusen Botanical Garden some 30 years ago to build the Sino Himalayan Garden rhododendron collection. Twenty years before the VanDusen work, Cook was a member of a team of horticulturists that transplanted a rhododendron species collection in England from Tower Court to Breakheart Hill in the Valley Gardens of the Crown Estate Windsor - one of the gardens of the Queen of England.

Few people can claim such distinction.

Cook continued his life's work recently when he opened up his personal North Vancouver garden to the Sunshine Coast Botanical Garden ( Cook donated many of his rhodos to a new home in the botanical garden in Sechelt.

But transplanting some 40 plus rhodos ranging in sizes from one metre to three metres tall requires a team of horticulturists. Enter the enthusiastic students of the Horticulture Training Program at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. The students were guided by chief instructor

Egan Davis who is a hometown boy and graduate of Capilano College. I have a lifelong and affectionate association with Davis because he worked with me as one of my apprentices while he was the foreman at Park and Tilford Gardens.

Our rhodo dig day started at 8 a.m. Feb. 20 with Sunshine Coast Botanical Garden president Gerry Latham giving a welcoming talk and outlining an overview of the day's purpose. Davis then gave the students advice on how to approach the work within the densely planted confines of Cook's garden. Students broke into teams of two and began to transplant rhododendrons.

During the day I got to know some of the volunteers from the botanical garden, like photographer Paddy Wales, one of its founding members. And Mary Blockberger, manager of the garden who is their only paid employee.

Also on hand with a donation of perennials for the botanical garden was Douglas Justice, associate director and curator of collections at the UBC Botanical Garden. Justice is one of the most knowledgeable plantsmen in Canada.

The District of Sechelt helped the cause by providing four staff and two large trucks to transport the day's bounty back home. And the City of North Vancouver sent the enthusiastic Dustin Cromie and Jeff Case to help with the transplanting of larger rhododendrons.

Once the students were focused and working on their task, Davis walked through the garden and said, "I love the sound of spades. It's the sound of change and progress."

On hand to assist Davis with training was Horticulture Training Program graduate and current program assistant Kerrie van Gaalen. She has a degree in mechanical engineering and got into the field to work in sustainable engineering.

I asked van Gaalen why she left engineering to enter horticulture.

"I have always been passionate about plants. When I was young I would go out and collect plants and bring them home to grow. I collected so many that my mother finally banned me from bringing home any more," she said affectionately.

I had hoped to talk to all of the students but there was simply not enough time. I did get some great thoughts from several people. Training program student Dominique said, "I like plants because each one has its own story."

Barbara Cook, the lady of the house, said, "It makes me feel young to see everyone working towards the same goal."

"There are generations at work here. It's a lineage that goes back to 60 years or more. Even you (Todd), are part of it. Didn't you work at a botanical garden once?" Gerry Gibbens, well-known plant guru from VanDusen, said to me cheekily with a poke that elicited laughter from both of us.

The buzz of activity during the day made it difficult for me to talk to Davis but I finally talked to him over lunch and asked him what was the most important thing he hoped the students would learn during the day.

"That it's a historic moment for local horticulture and I want them to understand the gravity of their goal," he said.

We also discussed his current job and his hopes for the future of the horticulture program at UBC. "I want the UBC program to achieve the same level of synergy we had at Park and Tilford," Davis said enthusiastically.

Synergy was clearly evident from everyone involved in the day's work.

Todd Major is a journeyman horticulturist, garden designer and builder, teacher and organic advocate.