This summer the Green Dreamers toured the May Court Hospice Gardens. The gardens are not open to the public; they have been created as a private refuge for Hospice clients, their families, guests, staff, and volunteers. And so, we felt especially privileged to be welcomed as guests by volunteer gardeners & staff to this green oasis in the heart of Old Ottawa South.
A Remarkable History of Service
Formerly the Hospice of All Saints, the May Court Hospice has been providing community hospice programs since the 1980s. In 1998 the hospice was relocated to the convalescent home at 114 Cameron Avenue and by 2001 nine end-of-life care beds were made available for individuals living with a life-limiting illness.
More recently, in 2013, the hospice at May Court amalgamated with Friends of Hospice Ottawa to form Hospice Care Ottawa offering care at three locations throughout the Ottawa region. Like most not-for-profit organizations, the Hospice at May Court has a proud history of transforming itself to meet the needs of community.
The May Court Club is Canada’s oldest women’s service club and is one of nine May Court Clubs that comprise the Association of May Court Clubs of Canada. Founded in 1898, the May Court Club has been providing volunteer services and financial assistance for over 100 years.
As the Hospice’s Sustaining Benefactor, the May Court Club provides the property and building. It also provides substantial support financially to maintain this infrastructure and the beautiful grounds on the bank of the Rideau River.
The original dwelling of the Hospice at May Court was owned by John Albert Ewart (1872-1964) a well-known Ottawa architect who studied at the University of Toronto in the 1890s. In 1959 the May Court Club acquired the Ewart property and opened a convalescent home. In the late 1960s townhouses on either side of the property were built and we have today what we know as Rideau River and Pentry Lanes.
The Grounds & Gardens of the Hospice
In 2000-2001 the first gardening project at the May Court Hospice transformed the courtyard facing Cameron Street from paved flagstones into a four-season garden. Mary Pratt, an avid Ottawa gardener, consultant, lecturer and former president of the Canadian Peony Society spearheaded this initiative. The new plantings included a magnolia tree, a curly dogwood, a yew, and many perennials and annuals.
In 2002 volunteer gardeners began maintaining what Mary Pratt started and extended their reach into the back gardens where narrow beds lined the terrace walls, the west side of the residence, and a central wooden planter box. These gardens were heavily shaded, badly neglected and overgrown. The soil was also in poor condition.
The sheer beauty, however, of the gentle rolling landscape as it fans out towards the Rideau River was not lost on its original gardeners. Their creative eye followed the natural line of the landscape, the stately presence of Burr Oaks, Red Maples, Ash, Elm, and Bitternut Hickory; they envisioned its exquisite potential.
During 2005 a team of gardeners from the Ontario Horticultural Society Community Gardeners helped May Court Hospice gardeners on a weekly basis. Together they rejuvenated beds by pruning trees, shrubs, expanding perennial beds, the shade garden on the west side, and building a 3-bin compost unit. That same year a rain barrel, plants, flagstones, soil, table and chairs were donated to the gardeners.
Many hands have contributed to the creative vision of the original hospice gardeners. From 2005 to 2012, the number of garden volunteers has steadily grown: from 5 to 8, from 8 to 10, from 11 to 23. As of 2018 there are 31 gardeners who volunteer at the May Court Hospice. This number is not constant; it fluctuates. Volunteers move, take on other projects, go on holiday, etc. But it’s a large enough pool that a steady rhythm from year to year can be maintained.
The May Court gardeners as of 2007 have a modest budget and continue to rely on donations and bequests. In 2008 the volunteers developed a garden manual and have updated it annually. The following year they started a herb garden, built a second compost unit, and added to their perennial beds.
By 2013 there were 29 gardeners working. The gardeners divided the gardens in half: east and west. Two gardeners per day from Monday to Friday work to keep the gardens pruned, weeded, and tidy. On Saturdays, the gardeners work as a group attending to some of the more substantial tasks of gardening. Beverages and small snacks (muffins & the like) are provided so that the group can take a break on the back patio.
By 2014, Beechwood Cemetery started contributing plants, soil, mulch, compost, shrubs, and small trees. This same year a bequest made it possible to build a new central planter (stones donated by Merkeley), buy tools, plant supports, and add more chairs.
In 2018, for a fifth consecutive year Beechwood donated annuals. A native wild flower garden was started. Over the years a garden shed has been built, privacy screens have been added, rocks moved, scrub plants and dead trees removed, new trees planted, and more tools purchased.
As you might gather from this reading, gardening is an on-going labour of love and perseverance. It is no easy task to keep the momentum going. It is a work of art in motion, creating for the hell of it and for the absolute pleasure of sharing what inspires us most: nature itself.
Special thanks go to Green Dreamer Martha Wiebe who organized the garden tour, to Catherine Shaw who guided us around the grounds, and to Pleasantine Drake who graciously shared the historic journey of the May Court Hospice Gardens.