It’s around noon on a Friday as Tracy Jessen and Dwayne Tattrie finish their lunches in a small building at the greenhouse complex on Sackville Street.
The workday is half over and both are using the break to their advantage: Jessen is eagerly waiting to hear if she’s gotten Barenaked Ladies tickets, while Tattrie answers texts.
Both seem focused on their tasks, but when asked about their jobs as gardeners for the Halifax Public Gardens, everything else goes aside. Jessen and Tattrie have a combined 40 years of experience working in the gardens, which turn 150 this year.
“I don’t believe I’ve been here for 25 years until I really look at it,” says Tattrie who has a landscape horticulture diploma from the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, now the Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture. “There are not a lot of changes in the gardens, so you don’t get that age succession.”
Jessen, who has the same diploma and has been with the gardens for 15 years, says this lack of change is because the space has to maintain its Victorian look.
“It’s a Victorian garden and National Historic Site, so it’s the design that’s protected. We can’t change shape beds or sizes,” she says. “We keep tradition.”
The Public Gardens are the result of Halifax combining two separate gardens. The first of which, a 2.3-hectare “People’s Garden” that the Nova Scotia Horticultural Society created in 1841. In 1866, a public garden was created in an adjacent 0.8-hectare lot. As it was costly to run the People’s Garden, the City of Halifax bought it in 1867 and combined with the public garden to create the Halifax Public Gardens.
While the Victorian design challenges gardeners, it’s also one of the benefits.
“When you study horticulture in Atlantic Canada, this the job you’d want if you’re looking for a higher maintenance type of job,” says Tattrie. “We are held to a higher standard. If you’re working in the private industry a lot of it is basic maintenance, so they can pick up anyone to do the work.”
Despite strict rules, there have been a few changes to the gardens over the years. These include new structures, plants and trees, such as the Boer War Fountain in 1903, the bandstand marking Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, and an oak that Prince Charles planted in 2014. Victoria Park’s Robbie Burns statue used to be by the Public Gardens’ front gate.
Hurricane Juan caused big changes. “We lost huge trees that were at least 100 years old,” says Tattrie. “It was devastating, but it was a silver lining for us; we were able to work with infrastructure afterward and it sort of safely took down those old trees.”
The work is labour intensive. Cleanup starts in April and planting begins in May, following the Victoria Day weekend. The goal is to be finished July 1.
Depending on what’s involved, planting for a single bed or group of beds can take a few weeks. Sometimes, the hardest part of the job is creating a particular design. For example the carpet beds, which are two large plots, usually reflect an anniversary or special event. This year, the beds will have Canada’s 150th and Public Garden’s 150th designs.
“I do one of the carpet beds and you’re on a ladder for one to two weeks,” says Jessen. “You have sweat equity in this stuff.”
But the work is worth it. “You can get told almost daily how lucky you are to have this job,” Jessen says. “Tourists are excited to be there and that’s motivating and encouraging. At a young age, people associate the gardens with good times. They come back for university, graduation, and proms and then they’ll come back with their own kids.”
Since the gardens are celebrating a milestone, Tattrie and Jessen want to see more horticulture-focused events in the future. They say that was the gardens’ original purpose: to teach Haligonians. “People want that,” says Jessen. “You can tell that because the Common Roots garden [on Quinpool] is so popular and being in the heart of the city, you can use the Public Gardens to teach so many people.”
But no matter what, both gardeners are proud to maintain a piece of Halifax’s history.
“When you’ve been doing it for a while you forget that and forget to look around and see how fortunate you are,” says Jessen.