When Life Gives you Lemons, Plant Flowers

Let’s start the year off right by looking at the silver lining. Most of us are over the moon to be starting a new year. 2020 will go down in history as a uniquely challenging year for most communities worldwide with the Covid-19 pandemic and the hardships following in its wake. So let’s celebrate the good people of one creative and resilient community. 

Trail, British Columbia, exemplifies the words community pride. This small city, which is about as south as you can get in BC before hitting the United States border (an 18-minute drive to be precise), is home to remarkable residents who have greatly improved their city over the last two decades. 

Celebrating 20 Years of Growing Together

How has Trail accomplished this? The simple answer: with thousands of flowers and a lot of elbow grease. Trail’s trip down the garden path started twenty years ago. It’s a rather remarkable story that begins with Lana and Dan Rodlie, the wife and husband team who were instrumental in Trail’s transformation. 

Lana explains, “Back in the late 90s, early 2000s, Trail had such a horrible reputation for pollution, and the Vancouver Sun had a big article about children getting lead poisoning from the smelter. And it was really bad publicity, so the town’s people got together to ask, ‘What the hell can we do to change our image?'” Lana doesn’t mince her words and says the town was in dire straits from the impact of decades of unregulated industrial activity in the city that left the soil, air, and water contaminated. 

So Lana and a few other concerned citizens came together to form a committee to improve Trail’s image. The committee discovered a national program called Communities in Bloom. Communities in Bloom is a Canadian non-profit organization committed to fostering friendly competition between communities to beautify their public spaces. The national organization, Communities in Bloom (plural), inspires local chapters of Community in Bloom (singular). Lana and the committee at the time thought this program could be a great fit for Trail because Communities in Bloom has two goals: beautify to encourage a sense of pride in the community and encourage environmental responsibility. Lana and the committee signed Trail up to be a participating community, thus creating Community in Bloom Trail. 

Lana’s husband, Dan, stepped in as chair of the brand new Community in Bloom committee. To this day, Community in Bloom is a committee under Trail council so the funding comes from the City of Trail, but they also fundraise and accept donations and corporate sponsorships. Private sponsorships of projects or specific gardens are common.   

Lana explains what grew from this moment: “The brand new garden committee started with a garden contest and from there it morphed into clean-up campaigns, working on the environment, urban forestry as well as creating floral gardens throughout the town. And it’s been going on right up until the present. We’ve done lots of different projects.” 

Volunteers Connie & David work to beautify downtown Trail.

The City of Trail has won many awards for the gardens Community in Bloom has built and maintained.

Lana is modest about the group’s accomplishments. She says, “We won the 2019 Canadian Garden Council Award for the best destination garden. And that was international. That was a feather in our cap. As well as throughout the years we’ve won various awards through the Communities in Bloom program. This year my husband and I were selected as citizens of the year for Trail for all the work we’ve done, although we don’t really feel like we’ve done it alone.”

One of the first projects was the Annual Garden Contest, which hundreds of Trail residents took part in for over 15 years. This contest encouraged residents to have their garden judged in categories such as container, edible, whimsical, and children’s gardens. Lana says that hundreds of people took part over the years and this event alone inspired many people into home gardening. 

An annual garden tour is quite a tradition in Trail, and is a large affair involving a sponsored lunch and busses taking people around to notable gardens. 

Lana speaks about the Annual Garden Tour: “That’s had a major impact on residents and the fact that we should show off all these gardens. And businesses got quite involved. Anywhere they could create a garden outside their business.”

Trail’s Community in Bloom results in 2005

The signature of Community in Bloom is hanging baskets and pots downtown for flowers and vegetable growing. The matching black water-conserving pots the City of Trail has provided in the last few years have added a decorative flair to downtown. Another mainstay is the perennial gardens at city parks that volunteers plant and maintain. One successful example is the decade-old White Garden. The garden blooms in early spring to late fall with all white flowers. Although, Lana says, they are still trying to get white roses to bloom there. 

“You can’t do everything,” she laughs.

Community in Bloom has been involved more recently in guerilla gardening

Lana explains, “As in a war guerilla. What it means is people are creating gardens in public spaces where there was nothing before, like boulevards and intersections where there was just a lot with a bunch of weeds. They stepped up and put in perennials to make it look nicer. A good example is on the highway going out of town towards Shaver’s Bench. A whole lot of people on this one street created a guerilla garden all along the bank.”

Many other local organizations and companies have been inspired by Community in Bloom to plant their own gardens and pots. The result, Lana says, is, “We hear it all the time, that people really enjoy what it’s like here in the summertime. It’s clean; the flowers are beautiful.”

For Lana, the only issue has been that, “Two-legged creatures come in and steal the plants.” 

Lana and Dan have certainly put in their time with Community in Bloom. Dan is still trying to retire officially from his role as chair but will stay on as interim chair through 2021. This new year is a big moment for Lana and Dan. One of the reasons they are ready to let go of their baby of sorts is that a highly skilled coordinator is managing the program. Rachael Brown has been excelling in the role of volunteer coordinator and landscaper for the past three years. While a volunteer will need to step into Dan’s committee chair role, the program is blooming under Rachael’s green thumb and organization prowess. 

Rachael is a newer resident who worked gardening contracts on her own for seven years in Trail. Community in Bloom hired her to do odd jobs. When an opening for a paid coordinator and landscaper came up, Rachael could hardly believe her good fortune. It also worked out well for Community in Bloom because Rachael is keen. She even admits she ends up volunteering on the side because she gets swept up in the different projects. 

Reflecting on three years in the role, Rachael says that the program’s operations have changed. She says, “Hopefully, I provide some freshness to the program.” And she certainly has been doing some exciting things. 

According to Lana, “Rachael and one of the volunteers do all the planting. It’s amazing what they’ve done.”

Some of Rachael’s successes are in the area of collaboration with other local groups. For example, they partnered with Take a Hike, an alternative education program run out of the high school. The kids come and volunteer at the gardens as part of their schooling. Many of the kids in the program came back as regular volunteers on their own time.

Another success is garden programming at the Daly Pavilion, a ward of the Kootenay Boundary Hospital in Trail that supports people experiencing mental health and addiction challenges. 

Rachael explains, “Working with patients was a huge success for both programs because the patients said they found it very therapeutic to come out into the world and do something productive and be a part of something. They would help plant and would help weed and would come back later and could see their work.”

Community in Bloom volunteers are busy. 2020 saw 64 volunteers perform 2,753 volunteer hours. Calculated at $15 per hour, that is $41,295 of value, Rachael says. Volunteers tilled, fertilized, planted, watered, cleaned, weeded, sold bulbs and much more. Volunteers also donated materials – mulch, plants, paint, facemasks, room in their basements for bulbs and other materials. It truly is a town effort. 

Working on the Gratitude Garden in 2020.

Covid-19 has impacted volunteer participation. Numbers are down from 2019 which saw 84 volunteers contribute 3,187 hours. The pandemic hindered collaboration with usual volunteer groups such as the hospital’s Daly Pavilion. But the pandemic has not slowed the forward motion of Community in Bloom as they worked with some new groups this year such as the VISAC gallery, BC Transplant, and the Kootenay Boundary Physicians Association. 

The health benefits of gardening with your community extend to the broader community as well. Rachael knows one person who moved to Trail last year and was feeling pretty down. She said the flowers around town uplifted her mood and inspired this person to become an active volunteer with Community in Bloom. 

“There’s something very therapeutic about gardening. We find this with all of the volunteers. You got your head down, and your task in front of you, and the conversation just flows. It’s been therapeutic in that sense. That’s been one of the successes.”

Community in Bloom volunteers go beyond grunt work and take an active role in designing garden beds and pots. 

“There’s a lot of play in how we choose to design things, and there’s lots of volunteer enthusiasm around that because people get to play and experiment. In the fall, we figure out what worked and what didn’t and get excited about these new visions of what a pot could look like. So that’s been really fun. That’s gotten more volunteer enthusiasm for the creativity of it,” Rachael says.

One thing that was a pleasant surprise for Rachael when she started was how much people in Trail are all willing to help out. Some people who are walking around town will stop in at a garden and lend a hand. Some people do work and don’t ask for it to be acknowledged. 

“There’s a mystery man that mows the bank, and I don’t know who it is. People just do things.”

Rachael Brown and Connie Smith

For Rachael, the main challenge in her role is finding a balance between what will benefit the program and what will benefit the volunteers. 

She says, “It’s the sense of community, more than the work that brings people out so when you get somebody that works on a bed by their house with their neighbour or there’s a group of friends that take on a project, it’s just a reason for them to go out and have fun together and be proud of their contribution to the community. I’m always keeping this in mind when I try to plan out events that will attract volunteers.”

Rachael is known for dreaming up unique and fun events. One of her recent successes was in collaboration with the late-night record shop in downtown Trail. Volunteers deadheaded flowers (removing the dead flowers) while listening to music from the Grateful Dead in the park gardens. Rachael says this highly attended event was one great example of the community coming together through Community in Bloom. 

They Say to Listen to Your Elders

We really should hear from a volunteer of Community in Bloom and a long time Trail resident about how the town has changed over two decades. Retiree Toni moved here in the 1950s when she was six years old. Toni has been gardening for the 20 plus years since her children flew the coop. She enjoys it and says that the pandemic has given her more time to focus on her gardening because she has been unable to maintain her usually busy social life. In the past few years, Toni has volunteered less with Community in Bloom because her husband passed, and she finds her garden is taking up most of her free time. 

For Toni, gardening is part of the culture of Trail, tracing back to the Italian settler roots there. She says, “A lot of the Italians took a lot of pride in their gardens, and also in those early years that was the mainstay for the families. It’s part of their heritage.” 

Toni loves the way gardening improves her life overall. For her, “A lot of people getting into gardening are realizing that it’s very relaxing. I find it almost like a mindless thing you do. You’re in a beautiful environment, especially if you’re into flower gardening, you can be very creative, and then your house always looks nice.” It also brings her family together, and she often involves her grandchildren in her lawn and garden chores. 

Community in Bloom has changed the face of the community. She says, “Communities in Bloom was a blessing for all of Trail. It’s motivated a lot of people. People here are so good about grooming their house and very creative in their flower arranging. And I think it’s showing a little pride. Certainly, what they’ve done downtown has just been amazing. The planters and the baskets that they’re planting, it just really is beautiful.” She had people visiting from Vancouver in the summer who exclaimed: “Oh my God, I didn’t realize how beautiful it is here!” And Toni sure felt proud hearing that. 

Toni says that at the beginning, some Trail residents were skeptical of Community in Bloom, not wanting to have local tax dollars go towards this beautification project. But for Toni, “It’s money well spent. My tax dollars, if that’s where they’re going to go, I love it.” Toni fights against the negativity that can exist about Trail, based on perceptions that Trail is an industry town and is not as naturally beautiful as some surrounding towns. Toni brushes these misperceptions away. 

She says, “We gotta be positive. I hate the negative: ‘Oh you live in Trail…’ Well, you know what, we have quite a lifestyle here.” She is so proud of the volunteers that have made this all happen. “Kudos to Community in Bloom. They have made a great effort and everything is looking beautiful.” 

Toni is proud of surrounding communities that have seen what Trail has done and followed in their footsteps. Lana, the co-founder of Community in Bloom Trail, has mentored other towns and cities into the program, for example, New Denver. Castlegar started the program years after Trail, but now they have moved ahead and won many awards. Trail has beat out Nelson time after time. 

For Lana, “It isn’t about beauty; it’s about volunteerism and what people contributed to the program.” Lana is speaking about the spirit of Trail: the hardworking residents prove that if you change the image of a place, you can change the place itself.

The Fruits of a Town’s Labour

Community in Bloom is part of the culture of Trail. Rachael says, “Community in Bloom has been going for such a long time that everybody knows about it, which is very interesting. People will come up and ask me when are the judges coming to visit? And it is a big production. It’s in the newspaper for the weeks leading up to it. And there’s a big clean up before they come.”

Trail residents are not shy to show pride in their community. Rachael says, “There’s lots of compliments. If you’re going to work any job, working in aesthetics is one of the most satisfying because everybody is always like, ‘oh the flowers are so beautiful. Great job.’ It’s very rewarding in that sense.” 

This past year involved some unique challenges for Rachael. She has worked hard to make sure volunteers keep planting and weeding despite the distance and sanitation measures required. This past summer, she sent photos of gardens around town in a series called “Four Photo Fridays.” This online sharing was a way to keep Community in Bloom members connected through this challenging pandemic. 

Rachael is awed by the difference Community in Bloom has made to the community. She explains the results of Community in Bloom over time: “That’s an incredible story. Community in Bloom started as a response to the environmental degradation that had happened over the years with Teck, the smelter. Regulations were pretty lax up until a little while ago, and the landscape had really shown it. So the City and also Teck’s solution was to try to bring Trail up to where it should be, and if you talk to anybody born and raised in Trail, the difference between what it looked like 20 years ago and what it looks like now is wild. It’s startling.”

Lana shares this perspective, too. She says, “Long term residents of Trail would look back 20 years ago and wouldn’t be able to believe the changes that we’ve brought forward. We don’t say that Community in Bloom did it all, but we really believe it was a catalyst to get it all done. It spurred other groups of people and businesses and institutions to do stuff as well.”

While the couple who made this all begin is stepping back, Rachael is looking towards a bright, flowery future. She says the wheels are in motion at the senior’s villa, and they have a big beautiful courtyard where Community in Bloom is working on providing senior residents with back-friendly raised beds. 

Other projects are in the works, and there is one in particular that Rachael hopes will come to fruition: “The landfill in Trail has tried to guerrilla garden their whole area there, but it’s quite challenging because it’s super hot, it’s pure sand, and there’s no water. But they’ve managed to do quite a few things. We’ve gotten in contact with each other and what we want to do is make these little seed bombs. We would take a porous clay ball usually used for hydroponics and surround it in compost and then stick native, drought-tolerant seeds in there, like yarrow. The idea is that in the spring, just before the rains start coming, you throw these seed bombs into areas.”

Lana looks forward to all the projects Rachael and her volunteer crew will dream up. So what will Lana be up to in this new year? Well, she certainly won’t be gardening. Ironically, she says of her and her husband, “We’re lousy gardeners.” She will be writing. Last year she published an historical fiction novel entitled Keepers of the Garden, a tale of discovery along the Columbia River aboard John Jacob Astor’s boat Beaver. Her current writing project is speculative fiction. Before retiring, she worked at the Trail Times as a reporter, and now her writing is just for fun. Farewell and thank you to Lana and Dan for your service to the community of Trail!

Let’s raise a glass to Trail, the tiny town with big dreams that shows the rest of us that a group of citizens coming together can build a brighter future.