Bader works on a seat for the welcoming area of the Greig Rhododendron Species Garden Thursday (March 29) at Milner Gardens and Woodland in Qualicum Beach. — Lauren Collins photo

Rhodo garden in Qualicum Beach to open at end of month

Volunteers include member of Syrian family who arrived in Parksville in 2017

An idea for Milner Gardens and Woodland that began in the late 1990s will finally be open to the public at the end of April.

The Greig Rhododendron Species Garden will be an expansion to the garden’s current rhododendron collection. The gardens has an official opening for Sunday April 22 at 1 p.m.

Geoff Ball, Milner Gardens executive director, said serious planning for Milner’s rhododendron garden began in 2014.

“At that time, this was all a secondary growth area of the garden, and over the years, we’ve cleared the land and worked on hardscaping. Between volunteer staff and students from the (horticulture technician foundation) program at the main Vancouver Island University campus in Nanaimo, we’ve just really ramped up over the last year and a half.”

However, according to a news release from Milner Gardens on the rhododendron garden, initial discussions for garden begin in 1998.

“Although far too early in the evolution of Milner Gardens to begin such a project, the idea carried on,” the release reads.

Work on the garden did halt for a period of time, Ball said.

“We ran across some archaeological deposits, and so we paused and had a whole inventory done to make sure we were respecting that.”

Once the assessment was complete, Ball said, work ramped up again in early 2017.

While the garden will be opening at the end of April, Ball said, there will eventually be thousands of companion plants as well as a whole interpretive system to build.

“There’s a lot to do still. We’re opening at the end of April but this will be an ongoing project that will take another couple years to complete,” Ball said.

But Milner Gardens is getting plenty of help, especially from members of the rhododendron societies up and down the Island.

Chris Southwick of the Nanaimo Rhododendron Society was on hand helping Thursday, March 29.

While she does have a thorough knowledge of rhododendrons and the garden, Southwick also has another connection to the garden. The rhododendron garden is being named in honour of Ted and Mary Greig, and Southwick is the granddaughter of the Greigs.

Southwick said the Greigs owned the Royston Nursery and would sell plants to the Milners because of the quality of the plants. The Milners and the Greigs, she said, eventually became friends.

She said when the Greigs started their nursery in Royston, they began by selling alpines.

“Alpines didn’t do so well on the coast, so then they got into rhododendrons and they actually became world authorities on species of rhododendrons, particularly my grandmother, Mary Greig, because grandpa still had a love of alpines,” Southwick said.

Southwick said the Greigs’ nursery was eventually sold to the Vancouver Parks Board, and a rhododendron garden is named after them in Stanley Park.

Some of their plants, Southwick said, were also given to the University of British Columbia and to the University of Victoria.

“It’s kind of fitting that this will be sort of a memorial to them and the family,” Southwick said of the Milner garden memorial. “It’s a really positive and constructive thing to do for today and for the future.”

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On Thursday, March 29, volunteers were working on hardscaping and members of rhododendron societies from throughout the Island came to work on mulching in beds to protect the rhododendrons that have already been planted.

The garden is a three-quarter acre expansion, Ball said. It will include paths to walk through the garden, benches and a welcoming area for people entering the rhododendron garden.

The hardscaping work is being done by volunteers including Bader, who arrived on the Island with his wife and three children in December, 2017, after spending the last four years living in Lebanon as a refugee after fleeing Syria. The family was sponsored by the Qualicum Refugee Sponsorship Group 2017.

Bader, said QRSG17 volunteer Wilfrid Worland, had worked in construction and farming while living in Lebanon and Syria.

“He’s done a lot of work in masonry, stone, tile. Ironically, there’s not much work of that nature here, there are some individual pieces we’ve done in the past, but as he (Bader) arrived, we had three to four projects all in stone,” said Worland, who is also working on the rhododendron garden and who has been volunteering at Milner Gardens for 20 years.

“It gives him not only an opportunity to work on his skills, but to do it with a team of people and to learn English,” he said of Bader.

Worland said Bader’s work is about three-quarters skill and about one-quarter ESL (English as a second language) lessons.

In his time volunteering on the project, Worland said, Bader has been learning bits of English with the names of tools such as ‘wheelbarrow,’ ‘level’ and ‘hammer.’

Bader said the work is good and the team he’s been working with is a “happy group.”

One part of the project that Bader did entirely on his own, Worland said, is a rock wall and sitting area down a pathway to the right of the welcoming area.

Bader, looking proud of his work, said he would be bringing his family to show them the work once the garden is open.

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