Have you ever driven along KW’s Highway 85, when something along the embankment caught your eye? If you’ve done this during spring, you may have seen a glimpse of a surprising grouping of flowers in the shape of a happy face. Did it bring you a moment of delight? Then mission accomplished.
The sole intent of these smiling highway plantings is to bring people a little joy on their drive, says the man responsible, who is known only as the Unknown Gardener. The plantings are done on government-owned property and as he does not ask permission to plant, he keeps his identity secret. His work is known only to a few trusted friends who help with the midnight beautification projects.
“There is no political agenda or secret message to this,” says the Gardener. “It’s a simple premise: I like to make other people happy and seeing these flowers in an unexpected place can offer a moment of brightness to people. And that’s worth something.”
Matthew McCarthy of The Record made this video of the Unknown Gardener’s midnight planting excursion, as part of the Reason for Being video series.
The Unknown Gardener did his first planting in 2008 near the Conestoga Mall off ramp. Nervous about being caught for what is technically trespassing, although rather benign in the criminal offense department, the Gardener accidentally ripped his pants climbing the fence to reach the green space.
Undeterred, he turned on his weed whacker to clear a space and was hyper aware of the sound it made in the still night. Seconds later, an OPP car appeared on the off-ramp with its lights flashing. As he dove for the dirt, the Gardener quickly shouted to his volunteer crew to flee the scene. But the police car drove on, leaving the planting party to reconvene and get on with its job.
And the job is to plant several hundred flower bulbs in various happy face configurations in about 20 minutes. The Gardener assembles a small crew of volunteer gardeners-in-crime who dress in black for effective night-time sneakery. They climb to a highway embankment to follow the Unknown Gardener’s designs, dig holes, plant bulbs and get out before getting noticed.
To the Gardener’s disappointment, there have been some failed planting experiments. “One year I planted 650 beautiful alliums, but the next year only two lonely alliums resurfaced,” he says. “The next year I planted 450 hyacinths but not a single one came up the following year.” Now he only plants hardy daffodils that can weather the winter and pesky rodents.
You’d think with the pleasure the plantings give people and how it jazzes up the region’s highway for tourists, the Gardener would be up for some recognition. However, it’s important for him to remain anonymous. “This isn’t about me; it’s a random act of kindness that needs a bit of mystery; like Batman or the Easter Bunny,” he says. In fact, the plantings are aligned with the region’s Random Act of Kindness Day each November. Then a few months later, motorists get to enjoy the rewards of his efforts.
You can check out the happy face plantings as they blossom this month along Highway 85 near Conestoga Mall, Sunrise Centre and the Wellington Street overpass.
The Unknown Gardener personally funds all of the bulb purchases, although he once won the $1,000 KW Awesome Foundation prize for the coolest and most creative project in Waterloo Region. But he would happily take donations as well as volunteer planters. His dream is to see flowers in bloom along the 85 throughout the whole season. If you want to help make that happen, you can contact me and I’ll pass the information on, keeping his secret-identity intact.
P.S. The Unknown Gardener’s favourite topic of conversation: telling stories that often end up about being about his family.