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RIVERVIEW STORIES: In the garden

Don and Norma Gillespie sit in Finnie
Don and Norma Gillespie sit in Finnie's Garden, on one of the many stone stairways built by patients.
— image credit: SARAH PAYNE/TRI-CITY NEWS

Of Riverview's 244 acres, the two in its northwest pocket — known as Finnie's Garden — offer a unique, tranquil setting at odds with the bustling traffic of Lougheed Highway just down the hill.

It's a unique space not only for the twisting paths that guide the walker past Finnie's own impressive collection of trees and plants, but also for the garden's history and and the passionate caretakers who have tended it for the past 60 years.

First conceived as a horticultural therapy program for patients in 1951, the garden started out as Farm View. A former Riverview nurse by the name of Art Finnie, who had been injured in an altercation with a patient (an ex-boxer), was asked to set up the garden and it wasn't long before the project became known as Finnie's Garden.

Intricate plans were drawn up by a draftsman patient, and fellow patients cleared the land and built the stone terraces and stairways that are still visible today.

 

TAKE A TOUR

Finding Finnie's is somewhat of an adventure in itself, starting with the stately Holly Drive, and ending with a bumpy stretch along a deeply rutted gravel road off Kerria Drive.

It's where Don Gillespie is already at work, his gardening-gloved hands deep into a large shrub drooping with heavy purple flowers. He's soon joined by his wife, Norma Gillespie, and the pair quickly head to the old lawn bowling area, the starting point of so many tours over the past few decades and the location of the large plaque recognizing the dedication of Finnie's Garden in May 1994.

Up a short trail is the original pond, once exposed to the sun but now shaded by tall trees, and nearby is the original stone barbecue that was often manned by Finnie himself.

"Three or four years ago the Friends of Finnie's decided it should be cleaned up and it should be a naturescape garden," Norma said. "It was all non-natives here, and now there's skunk cabbage. It's coming along nicely."

Around the corner is an area that hasn't changed much from the garden's early days.

"When we first started...we didn't do anything down here, because this is where the patients were most often," Norma said of the ward plots. "So we had to give them their space."

Patients with grounds privileges would often come to Finnie's after breakfast, Norma said, break for lunch and come straight back again to get their hands back in the soil, while those without privileges came with a staff member.

The large meadow nearby was a favourite spot in Riverview's early days, Norma adds, when the only therapies were a peaceful environment, good food and fresh air.

Black locust trees that have been taken down to provide the garden with some much-needed sunlight have been put to use creating fences, an archway-turned-tunnel now known as Finnie's Folly and, further up the hill, a 60-foot grape arbor. Dotted along the pathway are rows of raspberry bushes with fat, juicy berries ready for the picking, a wide Spanish walnut tree — too old now to produce much but still an occasional favourite with bears — a blue hydrangea, black cherry and a hazelnut tree.

Sword ferns have been planted under cedar trees, a typical West Coast scene flourishing alongside the garden's heritage roses and peonies.

Norma, a former Riverview nurse, said the Friends of Finnie's are often contacted by developers about to clear a piece of land, asking if the native salal, huckleberry or ferns could be re-used.

"We do take out the invasives and replace them with natives...but we're also looking after what's here," Norma said. "That's part of Finnie's legacy."

Don points out an odd grouping of holly trees, noting that patients planted things in locations that might seem strange to an avid gardener or landscaper.

"But we're not going to move things, we need to keep the history," he said. Further along Don points proudly to a tree donated by the Gillespie's arborist son — the sugar maple, whose leaf adorns the Canadian flag — while Norma shows off what can happen when invasive weeds are removed: a vibrant carpet of native thyme spreading over a rock wall and into the grass below.

 

FINNIE'S RESTORED

If the Gillespie's are known as Finnie's current caretakers, it was Katie Hughes who first brought it back to life some 30 years ago.

As a teenager attending Port Coquitlam High (which later became Terry Fox secondary), Hughes said half the city worked for CP Rail and the other half at Riverview. She grew up participating in and, later, running various recreation programs and went to work at Riverview in 1977, where she ran occupational and recreational therapy programs out of Pennington Hall.

"When the government decided to start phasing out the hospital and shutting down many of the programs, there was less maintenance on the grounds and it started going down. We worked to keep Finnie's Garden alive."

After Finnie retired the garden fell into disrepair, Hughes said, so she started the gardening program in the early '80s to help restore it to its former glory.

Hughes said she'll never forget what a female patient said after a long day of digging in the soil, when the two had a chance to sit back and enjoy the garden.

"She said, 'You know Katie, when you live here the world is very small, but it's a beautiful world when you get out here.'"

Hughes lives in White Rock now, but returns to her forming stomping grounds for regular tree walks with the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society.

"Finnie's is such a lovely place, what a shame if anything happens to it," she said. "The grounds are a treasure."

 

FOR THE FUTURE

Back in the old lawn bowling area, now a popular picnic spot dotted with tables, a coyote trots past at the end of the field as the Gillespie's explain what keeps them coming back to Finnie's — for more than 20 years the couple has been there at least twice a week to prune, weed, clean up and plant.

"In the early '80s we saw 150 acres taken from the top of the property for market housing," Norma said, and they're willing to do just about anything to keep that from happening again.

The Gillespie's five children, nine grandchildren and even a great-grandchild are frequent visitors and know that the family picnic at Finnie's is a quick one, "because they know Don will have some work for them," Norma grins.

Their own house in Port Coquitlam is a naturescape as well but the Gillespie's admit to putting in more work at Finnie's than their own back yard.

"It's more important to look after this than keep the weeds out of our place," Norma said.

"Because we know it's important for future generations," Don adds. "It's a sanctuary for all of us, not just the mentally ill, but for all of us."

• The Friends of Finnie's meet Thursdays and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. to maintain the garden, and everyone is welcome to come and help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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