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Jan. 19, 2022 | Wednesday
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Sheila Hirsch-Kalm and her magical garden oasis
Sheila Hirsch-Kalm rests after 40 Master Gardeners walked her property for a tour last Wednesday. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

About 40 master gardeners and friends arrived by bus at Sheila Hirsch-Kalm’s home on York Road last Wednesday evening to walk through her garden and appreciate the dedication and love she puts into the space.

She is a member of the NOTL Horticultural Society and known for the installation of the Daffodil Gardens of Hope around NOTL in 2018. She has opened her home to tour buses of interested gardeners and garden-lovers on countless occasions, and says she will continue to do so.

But this isn’t just a story about a glorious garden – though it is indeed glorious – it’s about a woman who refuses to give up. Barriers mean nothing, she’ll simply plow through them.

That steadfast attitude is evident in her creation of an abundantly flowing garden scape from what was once nothing more than an open field. When she purchased the property in 2001, she says the field was simple and bare, “You could see straight over the escarpment.”

The backyard spans more than an acre out her kitchen window and has since been transformed into a lush botanical garden. Much more than gorgeous landscaping and beautiful flowers, it’s a little piece of paradise for Hirsch-Kalm, where she says she continues to work and focus on the hobbies that have brought her so much joy over the years.

She won’t sit idly by while age creeps up – at 83, Hirsch-Kalm says she’ll sleep when she’s dead.

She’s an advocate for adapting with age, not simply giving up on the things you enjoy because your body isn’t as strong as it once was. She has been updating her garden over the last few years, installing leaning gardens and flower beds that she can work on while using her walker. She had the walls torn down and renovated her main floor to allow for better mobility around her home.

She says she sees her garden as a learning tool for others who, through aging or disability, have to change how they garden. 

“How to think ahead by redesigning plantings so they require less work. My large perennial beds turned into beds of Japanese maples, gives wonderful fall colour. Ground cover is fabric covered with stones/pebbles. No weeding! Raised beds that you access from sitting on a walker etc., and surround on three sides.”

On top of that, she was invited to a conference, Ageworks – The Art of Aging Forum. The conference is an assembly of organizations and individuals who want to make a difference by reducing ageist attitudes.

Hirsch-Kalm says NOTL’s seniors are not represented enough and that’s something she wants to work on bringing to town.

“NOTL is the only local community who is not participating in being an age-friendly designated community,” she says.

“We have the Youth Advisory Committee. We need senior representation more.”

She has been battling a rare blood cancer, called myelofibrosis, for the last 20 years. And though at times she needs to incorporate rest into her busy schedule (as she insists everyone should), she isn’t about to let the latter years of life pass her by.

To see her, you wouldn’t know she’s been ill, though, she’s not letting cancer slow her down. “My garden is what keeps me going. It’s my healing bed.”

Her garden, much like her life, is an inspiration to anyone who crosses its path.

As the visiting gardeners walked the grounds, smelling the varieties of roses and peonies and other flowers that fill every nook and cranny, they spoke of the love and devotion that went into the space, the amount of time it must have taken to plan out and create the sprawling gardens and the inspiration and respect commanded by the woman who made it all possible. Hirsch-Kalm is a force and that’s evident in everything she does.

Lori Vanderlinden, one of the visitors from Northumberland Region, says she was struck by Hirsch-Kalm’s example.

“Isn’t she something? She’s so inspiring,” Vanderlinden says.

Hirsch-Kalm has been entertaining busloads of visitors interested in her garden for several years. Before each tour rolls through she spends weeks leading up to the date preparing the space for their enjoyment; setting up seating, maintaining the gardens and getting the space ready for their browsing eyes and wandering feet.

There are no hard surfaces in her garden aside from the absorbent stone around the pond and trees. She gets a lot of run-off water from up the escarpment she says. “But that’s a whole other story.”

The Lake Report arrived before the bus to get a jump on the interview and take some photos but Hirsch-Kalm was already busy in the kitchen cutting fruit and setting out water and cups for her guests.

Of course, she doesn’t do it all by herself. Her friend Kathy Seymour was by her side to help prepare the property for the tours. Seymour says she came to help with the construction of the koi pond several years ago and has been coming back regularly to help ever since.

“She’s the kind of person you want to stay close to,” Seymour says.

Though the garden requires a lot of upkeep, and busloads of visitors can make for an exhausting afternoon, Hirsch-Kalm says she takes great joy out of all of it. “It’s all in a day’s work when you open your garden.”