We met so briefly at the Barbours’ 50th commemoration, which was a shame as I had lots of questions to ask about Edmonton’s gardening history. Well, now having read the book, you have certainly answered the big question [Why grow here?] and settled numerous other issues. I wanted to write you a fan letter, to say what a engrossing read it was, and what a big contribution to Alberta’s cultural history it is. More than that, too, it deserves to be read widely in Canada, not because it is about other parts of the country but for what a terrific model it would be for future cultural history elsewhere.
GreaterToronto, if I may mention my home city, has had a large number of public and private “show” gardens as well as more modest ones and a vast expanse of market gardens and orchards since the early 1800s. As an example, Etobicoke was mostly farm land with a few villages dotted here and there, until 1945. The market gardens were owned and run by Chinese and Ukrainians, the orchards (especially for apples) by old-time Ontarians. When we were first married, 1973, there was still a 20-acre market garden at the corner of Islington and Eglinton Avenues—now a major intersection—growing vegetables. With the wind in the right direction, you could smell the crops when ripe. All gone now.
So with all that background it is sad to say there is nothing like your wonderful study for Toronto, nothing even remotely like it. If one were interested, it would be necessary to construct the history (as you have done), from a vast array of sources. Some of these sources are pretty slim. Toronto has a botanic garden in a fine Victorian glasshouse in Allan Gardens, for example; there is a three page article on its history and that is all. The area around it is now called the “Garden District” but that is just real estate fakery, because there is no history of the area from the “garden” point of view, so no one knows why it is called that.
All the essays were resonant to me, someone who is not by nature a gardener. I especially liked the chapter about Rose City. My uncle was a rose grower and breeder at Mills Roses in Bedford Park (now a north Toronto neighbourhood but then a village named after the famous garden suburb near London) just north of Toronto in the teens and ’20s of the last century. They moved to “faraway” Richmond Hill in the ’30s and continued until the 1970s. Both of those extensive properties and their miles of glasshouses are all gone, buried under expensive houses.
If I may say so, the most memorable part of your study is the essay on Edmonton’s Chinese market gardeners, which gives character to those whom history usually renders anonymous. In my youth in Toronto, the local greengrocer’s was called “the Chinaman’s” (everyone ignored the name on the shopfront: “Wong’s”). This was despite the fact that the son of “the Chinaman” was my classmate, Kennedy Ho. So your history of Bark Ging Wong’s family and enterprise was especially moving in delineating the struggles and triumphs of what must have been a terribly hard life.
What else to say? It’s a beautiful (great book design too!) and important work. So many great things in it—I hope you sell a lot of copies.
June 24, 2016