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Originally published October 23, 2010 at 7:04 PM | Page modified October 24, 2010 at 5:48 AM

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Plant Life

B.C. parks are living proof of a public priority

With lush borders, hanging baskets and plenty of people strolling, running and skating through them, British Columbia's Vancouver-area parks reflect the public's affection for horticulture and its display.

STANLEY PARK in Vancouver, B.C., is a horticultural wonderland. Pots of bromeliads are ringed in coleus, lusty gunnera lap against paths, and stretches of purple hydrangeas take your breath away. The vast park is so manicured it's hard to believe it's mobbed with tourists and locals strolling or picnicking, walking their dogs or whizzing by on skates and bikes.

Maybe I was so charmed by all this state-of-the-art horticulture and the lavish care it involves because I live near sadly overgrown and neglected Kinnear Park. Do Vancouverites just love flowers and nature more than we do? Or do they better appreciate their public spaces because their city is so much more densely populated than ours?

I sought answers from my friend Claude LeDoux, parks horticulture manager in the nearby riverside city of New Westminster. "It's the European, English and Scottish influence here," he explains. "There's a higher value put on horticulture and display, and that's reflected in B.C. parks."

New Westminster, population 60,000 and smack in the middle of the metropolitan Vancouver area, was the original capitol of British Columbia and had the first park system in the country. Royal engineers camped out in Queen's Park in the heart of the city; 150 years later the city's parks are going strong.

Here's just a glimpse of the envy-inducing gardening going on up there:

• LeDoux's crew, which cares for 353 acres of parks and open space, all have horticultural degrees.

• Luxuriant flower baskets hang from light posts in all the parks and along city streets. Every year, LeDoux and crew grow enough flowers from seed in their own greenhouses to pot up 700 baskets. Coleus, black-eyed Susan, lotus vines and brilliant petunias flow from the baskets, and each one is different.

• LeDoux's energies and talents expand beyond the boundaries of the parks; for the past 15 springs he's taught hanging-basket classes so popular they're held in an arena. He contracts with local businesses to plant up baskets for them, and the freshly renovated rose garden is rented out for weddings and funerals. LeDoux's entrepreneurial efforts beautify the city while raising money for the parks.

• Obvious expertise is shown in the choice and care of plants. Bedding out and potting up are part of the conversation about public parks, and plenty of greenhouses back up such ambitions. Starts of kale, pansies, bergenia and even poinsettias were plumping up for fall and winter display when I visited in August. New Westminster bedding out includes tender exotics like gingers, bananas, cannas, orchids and a wide range of cool succulents. Such unusual plantings must inspire all the fabulous gardens you see around town, especially on the park margins.

• Still under construction is Westminster Pier Park with a modern, urban aesthetic. Located along the Fraser River waterfront, it will connect the river with downtown New Westminster. Until Pier Park is completed in autumn 2011, residents can stroll Esplanade Park and enjoy blocks of witch hazel, roses, perennials, cleomes and fuchsia standards, interspersed with pocket gardens of showy succulents.

In the more pastoral Glenbrook Ravine, bridges arch over a man-made lake filled with turtles and water lilies. Casablanca lilies and bee balm form impressive masses while clematis clamber up trees, making the park feel like a home garden on steroids. Seniors who live nearby lounge on the terraces beside the lake, and neighbors stroll the paths that lead through woods and native plantings to nearby parks. A system of walking and biking trails is well under way to connect all the parks in the greater Vancouver area.

Sharing well-designed and cared-for public spaces restores and civilizes us. As Seattle zones up and grows denser, let's hope we learn a lesson from our neighbor to the north on what a city can do to make urban living more appealing.

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Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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