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Growth industry

Ten thousand years after some Mesopotamians first got the bright idea to plant some corn seeds, it's hard to imagine the gardening industry has any new ideas up its sleeve.

Ten thousand years after some Mesopotamians first got the bright idea to plant some corn seeds, it’s hard to imagine the gardening industry has any new ideas up its sleeve.

But the modern Canadian gardener is a demanding specimen.

“Gardeners come in here asking, ‘Hey, what’s new, what’s different?’” said Lorne Metropolit, who calls himself the “team leader” of the Yukon Botanical Gardens.

Today’s garden supplier must stay aggressively ahead of the curve, ever striving to bring new colours, taller varieties and larger plants to its dirty kneed clientele.

Their efforts have not come without rewards. In the last few decades, gardening has cemented itself as a sure bet for Canadian retail.

“It’s been one of the fastest growth industries,” said Metropolit.

Puns aside, in the last few years the Canadian gardening industry has ballooned to more than $1.8 billion a year from $44 million a year.

A good time for the Yukon Botanical Gardens to break ground on a 40 per cent expansion to both its garden centre and

the whimsically named PlantLand, a sprawling realm of trees, shrubs and perennials.

Ever since a pack of reprobate glaciers banded together to strip the territory of its best topsoil, gardening has not come easy to the territory’s growing green thumb culture.

“All our good soil was scraped up and dropped on Regina; Regina’s got 14 feet of beautiful black soil that’s got ‘made in Yukon’ on it,” said Metropolit.

“Fertilize,” by necessity, becomes the mantra of the Yukon green thumb.

“People forget to fertilize and then they say, ‘Gee look, it’s sitting there like a lump, it doesn’t want to grow,’—fertilize,” said Metropolit.

Or, just do away with the soil altogether, says the Garden’s newest product line.

The illusive water garden, a small pond jammed with aquatic plants, has forever been a beacon to the soil-poor residents of the Canadian North, a phenomenon Metropolit began to notice when he started seeing increased sales of rubber liner used to waterproof backyard ponds.

While the Zen-like stillness of a forest of water-lilies may be a hot suburban commodity, the average amateur gardener is hard-pressed to take a shovel to their backyard and engineer a new body of water.

Taking a hint from the Vietnamese, the Yukon Garden’s spring catalogue will include a complete line of pottery-centered water gardens.

“Everybody likes water gardens ... everybody also likes pottery—combine them,”

said Metropolit.

Place a giant pot on your porch, fill it with aquatic plants: instant water garden, and it only takes five minutes.

“Who in the heck wants to dig this hole, lay this in ... maintenance, all that, when you can just do this little thing on your deck up on the third floor,” he said.

Mosquito-averse Yukoners may well doubt the wisdom of saturating backyards with miniature wetlands.

“I have a four-letter word starting with ‘f’ for you ... fish,” said Metropolit.

Female mosquitoes typically lay their eggs in a dark spot in still water, where the eggs float for 48 hours before hatching into larva. By then, any self respecting fish should have snapped up the sumptuous mosquito babies.

Other winged insects will also be hard-pressed to find favour with the new gardens.

The darling of Metropolit’s new aquatic plant lineup is the notorious pitcher plant—one of the few fly-eaters of the plant world.

“It’s a whole new gardening thing, I can’t take responsibility for it, but I am taking responsibility for bringing it North,” he said.

For Yukon Gardens’ two decade history, Metropolit has consistently tried to push the envelope of what Yukoners could grow.

Just last year, Yukon Gardens stepped outside the realm of photosynthetic plants, offering mushroom kits for the first time.

PlantLand also holds the only tree nursery in Northern Canada.

Everybody likes trees, but the slow-growing woody perennials flagrantly defy modern expectations of instant gratification.

“You’re 40 years old, you can finally afford a beautiful home, you start planting these little shrubs up here—well, you’re going to be 60 before you’re going to be getting a lot of shade from that spruce tree,” said Metropolit.

Metropolit’s own gardening ambitions were first spurred by an unorthodox botanical diet, courtesy of his Ukrainian grandmother.

“I’d be in the stroller, she’d park me beside a nice bed of pansies and I’d graze,” said Metropolit.

“After I’d grazed a while she’d move me and then I’d mow down the next patch of pansies—that’s how I was introduced to horticulture,” he said.

The taste of pansies may still have been fresh in his memory when Metropolit shelved his teaching job, and opened up the Yukon’s own plant Disneyland more than 20 years ago.

The name alone, Yukon Botanical Gardens, conjures up images of a snow-covered Eden—at the very least, in the imaginations of prospective employees. While other Yukon businesses struggle to fill their summer employment rosters, Metropolit has already been barraged with 500 resumes to staff only 20 to 30 summer positions, some from as far away as Germany.

Droves of applicants with skydiving or scuba diving experience suggest the adventure quality of gardening has struck a chord with someone.

Amid nationwide layoffs and defunct investments, things are only looking up for Canada’s seed peddlers.

“It’s been shown that in tough times people tend to stay home more and spend more time in their yards, and that promotes a horticultural summer,” said Metropolit.

During the Second World War, Allied nations were told to plant victory gardens, small backyard gardens to alleviate commercial demand for food. By war’s end, at least in the United States, the output of victory gardens had come to equal all commercial production of fresh vegetables.

Recession worries all across Canada are spurring a return to the soil.

Recently, Vancouver city council considered overturning a bylaw preventing the backyard raising of chickens.

Gardening remains one of the few hobbies that, at the end of the season, finds its way to the dinner table, notes Metropolit.

Contact Tristin Hopper at