Photo Credit: Jane Eligh-Feryn 

This blog was first published on January 21, 2020.

By Annemarie Reimer

As she looked out at the piece of manicured parkland at the bottom of the hill by Lower Queen’s Park and Lakeside Drive, Jane Eligh-Feryn imagined a native plant garden, one that was pesticide-free.

It was the 1990’s and Jane helped pull together a group of Stratford and area citizens to create Meadowrue, a managed area of Stratford’s parkland that would have no lawn or pesticide use but instead would showcase diverse native plant communities.

This reflected the growing community concerns at the time about the overuse of pesticides. It was a long-term project involving a dedicated core of about 20 volunteers with funding from the City of Stratford, other government sources, and corporations.

Photo Credit: Jane Eligh-Feryn

“It was one of the most rewarding volunteer experiences that I’ve ever had,” recalled Jane, a local landscape architect, who spearheaded the project along with Eric Eberhardt, then owner of the local health food store The Gentle Rain.

Eric and Jane were both enthusiastic environmentalists, always looking for projects, and this one inspired everyone who worked on it. Carol Franken, Fae Knott, and Roger Cook were some of the dedicated volunteers who contributed their valuable expertise and time for years.

Photo Credit: Jane Eligh-Feryn

Meadowrue was to be a native plant garden containing different plant communities. There was a sunny open prairie meadow, a woodland path, a section of berry plants and other edibles for birds, and a wetland bog area with a dry stream bed running through it. The dry stream bed had to be created by the volunteers to control the runoff from Upper Queen’s Park. The location of the project was downhill and near the river and seen as a wasteland by the city.

Starting in 1990, volunteers worked steadily all year round for almost 10 years. Every winter experts led public workshops which also helped raise the necessary funds. Monthly articles written by volunteers ran in the Beacon Herald reporting on Meadowrue’s progress, and educating the public. Every Wednesday evening during the summer months, the volunteers would meet to dig, start seeds, plant, put up signage, or run bake sales and other fundraisers. Weeding was a never ending task.

Photo Credit: Jane Eligh-Feryn

Jane said that after about 8 years of intensive labour, one of the volunteers, Roger Cook, an avid woodsman and local farmer, asked Jane a pointed question, “Why are you doing this? Southwestern Ontario wants to be forest.” Jane knew this whole area of Ontario was a dense forest when the early pioneers arrived here 150 years ago. It was a mixed wood of maple, beech, hemlock, balsam fir, with some pine in open areas.

Jane agreed it was an ongoing battle to keep the prairie meadow from turning into a forest. After 10 years, some of the volunteers were moving on to other interests, and while the original concept of keeping the area in different plant communities had been a great idea and learning experience for all involved, a garden needs gardeners to maintain it. Meadowrue was gradually rewilding.

And that is what it is today. A naturalized wetland and woodland area near the north end of the park, adjacent to the river. Remnants of pathways and a twig arbour bear  witness to the work of those dedicated volunteers.

At the time of the project, the city spent many thousands of dollars maintaining the grass lawns right to the river’s edge, and keeping the grounds groomed through pesticides. Now, new groups of volunteers, such as the Avon River Environmental Association in collaboration with the Upper Thames Conservation Authority, are gradually naturalizing the banks of the river, through hard work, fund-raising, and public education. Sound familiar?

As for the anti-pesticide movement, it resulted in a gold standard advisory committee on pesticide control at the provincial government level. This advisory committee will soon be dismantled as part of the omnibus Bill 132 by the the current government, likely reducing crucial oversight of most pesticide use including harmful neonicotinoids or “neonics.”

Jane Eligh-Feryn
Photo Credit: Annemarie Reimer

While Eric Eberhardt has since died, Jane has continued to work on many naturalization projects after Meadowrue, including the Fryfogle Inn, and schoolyard greening projects. She sees her work with children as the most important because “you have to love nature, and then you protect it.”

Photo Credit: Jane Eligh-Feryn

Photo Credit: Jane Eligh-Feryn

Photo Credit: Annemarie Reimer, 2019

Interested in rewilding projects? Take a look at this video from our Rewilding for the Future panel at the Stratford Public Library, November 2019.