Our Wild Downtowns?

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw, “Reinstatement of the Blossoming Program” on the agenda for the 27 March 2018 CBRM council meeting.

Had Deputy Mayor Eldon MacDonald, who put the issue on the agenda, temporarily lost his mind? I think the short answer is, “Yes.”

 Janelle Osborne, President SDDA; Eldon MacDonald, Councillor District 5; Mayor Cecil Clarke, CBRM; Hon. Lisa Raitt, Minister of Transport; and James Sawler and staff, Mabou Gardens.

Downtown Blossoming, 2014. (L-R) Janelle Osborne, President Sydney Downtown Development Association; Eldon MacDonald, Councillor District 5; Mayor Cecil Clarke, CBRM; Hon. Lisa Raitt, Minister of Transport; and James Sawler and staff, Mabou Gardens.

During the meeting, he explained that, knowing there might be $100,000 left over from the snow clearance budget this year (money that is probably being spent as I type clearing the results of last night’s snowstorm), he wanted to suggest that rather than using it to assist any of the museums or cultural facilities or community groups that had been turned down for municipal grants this year, the CBRM direct it to the Blossoming program that hangs baskets of showy, high-maintenance flowers in the downtown cores of the CBRM’s constituent municipalities.

The Deputy Mayor’s case for restoring the funding relied on a) a consultant’s report on improving Sydney’s downtown which identified flower baskets as the number two priority; b) the fact that “Mr Sawler from Mabou Gardens” (the contractor who has supplied the baskets these past four years) has been left with 200 commercial-sized hanging flower baskets for which he has no use; and c) a letter to the Cape Breton Post from an unnamed “lady in Glace Bay” thanking the CBRM for last season’s red-and-white themed hanging baskets.

MacDonald’s arguments left me wondering a) why he would choose to go to bat for the number two priority in downtown Sydney while ignoring the number one priority which was “more live music;” b) whether Mr. Sawler has recouped the price of those hanging baskets (which I have to think he has); and c) whether one letter to the Cape Breton Post really constitutes a groundswell of support.

But my skepticism about the proposal was nothing compared to the tidal wave of scorn unleashed by the majority of his fellow councilors who couldn’t believe MacDonald was seriously proposing re-opening the budget discussions.

The proposal was rather convincingly defeated.


Business Cape Breton

But it all got me thinking.

First, about the Blossoming program itself, which began in Downtown Sydney in 2014 with a budget of $23,000 and was administered by Business Cape Breton (BCB).

In 2015, the Blossoming program was expanded to the wider CBRM, with a budget of $138,000, but that year the CBRM paid the contractor directly.

In 2016, the Blossoming program had a budget of $150,000 and was once again administered by BCB. The organization received the money in the form of a sustainability grant, although Marie Walsh, then CBRM CFO, told council the organization was not entitled to receive sustainability grants.

In 2017, the Blossoming program had a budget of $120,000 and was administered by BCB.

In response to an earlier inquiry, Jennifer Campbell of the CBRM finance department told me that BCB had received a 10% admin fee for the Blossoming program in 2014 and 2016. No such fee was paid in 2015 when the CBRM dealt with the contractor directly. Presumably, the 10% fee was once again applied in 2017, when BCB again managed the program, and would have applied in 2018 had funding been approved, as BCB was again handling the project — and had, in fact, made tender packages available back in November.

Could the loss of the Blossoming funding have been the straw that broke BCB’s back? (More on this elsewhere in this week’s edition.)


Make way for pollinators!

It also got me wondering if there were a more sustainable beautification alternative to the hanging baskets — more sustainable and perhaps even environmentally useful which, according to the gardening columnist in the Guardian, hanging baskets aren’t necessarily:

Hanging baskets can be a bit of an ecological disaster. Frilly, flamboyant or gaudy, the plants that are offered up are often bred so all the good stuff – pollen and nectar – is left out, or it’s inaccessible to our native bees, or it’s drenched in pesticides. Pity the poor pollinator who lands on the average basket, thrusting its head vainly into a bouquet of petals to find no supper.

Anecdotal evidence gathered while observing a hanging basket purchased at Sobeys last summer suggests this isn’t always the case, I saw lots of pollinators buzzing around its blossoms, but there are other concerns about commercial hanging baskets, including the high-cost of maintenance, that made me persist in my search for alternatives.


Turns out the city council of Bristol, England, has been conducting a similar search, sponsoring a study with the Bristol Botanic Gardens to discover which, if any, native plants would perform well — meaning, both attract pollinators and look pretty — in hanging baskets. The answer, it seems, is not many, although the study did recommend adding Autumn hawkbit (a type of dandelion) and greater birds foot trefoil to the non-native mixes.

That jibes with what I was told by Westmount Garden Club President Bibiane Lessard. I asked her whether any of the techniques used to garden with less water (which, I discovered, has a name: xeriscaping) could be applied to hanging baskets. Lessard consulted two other Master Gardeners, but all agreed there were few such options for hanging baskets. Said Thelma MacKillop:

Low maintenance  and xeriscaping gardening in soil is totally different than container gardening. Plants, drought tolerant or not, in confined space, in full sun and drying winds off the harbour still need plenty of water, fertilizing and care.  Sorry I don’t see any way around that issue.

But there are alternatives to hanging baskets, which is where the city of Bristol went.

In cooperation with a group called the Avon Wildlife Trust, the city introduced pollinator planters to a section of its business district, as part of a program called Our Wild Business:

Native wildflower species such as birds foot trefoil, wild strawberry and wild strawberry and herbs species including lavendar, thyme and mint were included in planting plans drawn up by wildlife garden experts Earth Timber Stone. When choosing the plants, Earth Timber Stone took into account the urban context of the project to include appropriately hardy species which can survive the additional pollution and disturbance by people.

As well as members of the Avon Wildlife Trust staff, a series of dedicated volunteers gave up over 120 hours of their time to the cause. A surgeon, an accountant and a waitress were among those who donned gardening gloves over the 7 days. Even employees of the local businesses got involved with staff dropping by on their way home from a long shift.

The experiment included 30 businesses on a stretch of Bristol’s Gloucester Road. The photo above shows what it looked like in front of the Room 212 Shop and Gallery. I contacted Room 212 owner Sarah Thorp and asked if her planters would be in place this season. She responded by email:

Our planters are out on our pavements all year round, and every year they get better!

Thorp, who actually installed her first planters four years ago, using “an old enamel bath,” says the effects of the program on the shopping district have been marked:

It’s amazing how many people stop to compliment the planters, and how bees found the flowers as soon as we planted them.

Since installing the planters along our section of the high street our shops and businesses have become a ‘Destination’ with a massive increase in footfall and an improved reputation. A Zero Waste shop has just chosen to open here — after searching Bristol for a premises.

I also asked Thorp about the amount of maintenance required for the planters and she said:

The planters are full of perennial shrubs and bulbs and it’s up to the traders to put annuals in for the summer. Occasionally I tell the shops I’m buying plants and they give me money to buy some for them as well.

They are very low maintenance, especially if perennial plants are chosen wisely. It’s important to chose flowers suitable for pollinators i.e. single open flowers and plants that will flower throughout the seasons.

We have had much more success with our planters than with hanging baskets which are expensive to install and only last one season. The planters can also be used for signage as businesses can paint on the sides.

Thorp does note that the planters wouldn’t work so well on narrow sidewalks (Gloucester Road is blessed with very wide ones), that the soil needs to be topped up “as it settles down quite a bit,” that people do dump “the occasional bit of rubbish” into them and that, if the plants are “too large and attractive,” they may be stolen.

But those negatives don’t seem to outweigh the positives:

[P]lanters are better environmentally than hanging baskets because they stay in situ and plants can grow on the spot. The council aren’t required to drive up and down the high street with a big truck in order to water them. The greenery all year round helps combat pollution. The planters act as an attractive screen between shops, especially for cafes and bars. Some people put seats to the sides of the planters


Can we talk?

Could such a program work in the CBRM? It would require buy-in from local businesses but since dressing up the downtown cores is intended to help local businesses, I can’t see why they would be reluctant to participate, especially if the new planters turned out to be less expensive than the hanging baskets. (Interestingly, the mix of wildflowers and annuals may be optimal — a study conducted by the University of Bristol suggests that the native flowers produce food for pollinators earlier in the year and the non-native species produce food later.)

What is required, I think, is better communication between the people with the relevant expertise (a list which would have to include ACAP Cape Breton, which has been helping establish pollinator gardens all over the place, including the site of the old Southend Community Centre; the folks behind the Upskilling Food Festival at New Dawn and garden club members across the municipality) with the downtown business owners and the people making the decisions about downtown beautification.

Why should people with related goals be working in  silos? Why shouldn’t the people hoping to make the downtown more attractive and the people hoping to increase the pollinator population work together? Why shouldn’t the people who want to make things pretty for the cruise ship passengers see the value in doing something more interesting than hanging baskets of petunias?

Why can’t we all see this as an opportunity for that newfangled “innovation” thing we’re all supposed to be so crazy about?








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