There are few community groups where dirt is a badge of honour, but wander down to the south end of Hibernia St. in Cobourg and you’ll find one. Dirty fingernails, besmirched T-shirts, muddy boots, a can-do work ethic and a passion for plants – these are the hallmarks of the Cobourg Ecology Gardeners, a group of about 15 volunteers who maintain the half-acre plot of land beside the boardwalk.
Minnie Pennell, a woman with formidable drive, started the Cobourg Ecology Garden 25 years ago. She chaired the town’s environmental advisory committee, and when she got the idea for the garden, she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Sister Linda Gregg of Villa St. Joseph Ecology and Spirituality Centre was also there at the beginning: “Minnie was adamant that she was going to start an ecology garden, and she’d heard I did workshops on organic gardening, so she wanted me to be part of it. I was busy and didn’t respond to her first couple of calls, but she finally got through to me and said ‘I know you think you don’t have time, but you are going to be on this committee!’”
And so she was. That was back in the fall of 1995. By February 1996 the committee was in full swing and Minnie had convinced the management at Legion Village to donate some land for the project. The planting of a bur oak at an Earth Day ceremony that year marked the official launch of the garden, and 25 years of sweat equity and further land donations have brought it to its current vibrant state: multiple demonstration gardens, raised beds for vegetables, a hugel (google it), sculptural elements, pop-up forest, gazebo, dry stone wall.
There have been hundreds of hands in the dirt over the years, friendships formed, lessons offered and received. It’s a magnetic place that attracts workers and wanderers alike, and kindles many casual conversations between strangers, ultimately creating a strong sense of community.
Roma Colbert, a feisty octogenarian who can haul more soil and mulch than most people half her age, lives nearby and can be found most days at the site wearing her green apron with trowel at the ready. Why did she get involved? “I was in awe of the biodiversity,” she says. “I had found an oasis and needed to be a part of it.”
Roma, a former Ecology Garden chair, is quick to credit Cobourg’s Parks department for all their help over the years – from horticultural advice and the installation of accessible paths and raised beds, to heavy lifting by both humans and machines. It’s a team effort to keep this gem going.
As with so many events in 2021, the big 25th anniversary celebration of the garden has been delayed and is currently scheduled for Saturday, July 24. But lots of activities to honour this milestone are well underway. They’re guided by current chair Dora Body, who honed her prodigious project-management skills in a career in IT before retiring to Cobourg: new triangle garden beds with a plant design by a student at Cobourg Collegiate, a poetry contest for adults and students (winners to be announced July 24), a nature quiz, a commemorative video and more.
The pandemic has forced us all to reflect on what we value most, and two things consistently stand out: our human need for social contact and the restorative power of nature. The Cobourg Ecology Garden offers both, brilliantly.
For more information about the 25th anniversary, see www.cobourgecologygarden.ca.