At 62, Doug Mongerson wants people to know they probably know a lot more than they think they do – even if they haven’t had formal training.
A gardener at Shuswap Lake General Hospital since 1980, Mongerson successfully challenged the exam to earn his Red Seal as a landscape horticulturist.
The Interprovincial Red Seal Program is recognized as the standard of excellence in skilled trades that allows the bearer to work anywhere in Canada without further training.
Before Mongerson took over more than 30 years ago, he worked in landscape outfits, including Paloranta.
“The owner designed the original garden at the hospital that they put in in 1972, so there was a nice connection there,” Mongerson says, his inspiration from the many public gardens he visited and from the plants he saw on alpine hikes.
“I hope I’ve left some bones of what it once was; a garden like that is not so much something I created, like a painting, it’s more of a performance art and it’s always changing.”
Mongerson’s joy and pride in the gardens that included the park around McGuire Lake, as well as those at Pioneer and Bastion Place, were evident and enjoyed by many.
But when Interior Health took over management of the hospital, the park was handed over to the City of Salmon Arm and the gardens reduced.
Now Mongerson’s job is more of a caretaker role than creator.
“I always knew someone would take over but didn’t think I would have to watch the demise of the garden,” he says, noting that he no longer has the time to nurture the plants the way he once had. “I learned what was and what wasn’t good; it was an opportunity to test my theories and see what plants were hardy and able to survive and thrive without care.”
Mongerson says he has always been a believer in xeriscaping and is happy that what remains of the hospital gardens requires less water and fertilizer.
Last summer, a Grade 12 student who was planning to attend Thompson Rivers University, approached Mongerson to know if she could work with him to get credit for apprenticeship hours.
When he was filling out the requisite forms, Salmon Arm Secondary school counsellor John Quilty suggested Mongerson challenge the exam.
“I had heard about it. I just never thought about it, I didn’t think it would ever do anything for me,” Mongerson said. “I talked to my manager and Interior Health made it easy for me to challenge the exam, which was taking the place of the four-year course.”
Mongerson says the exam, which he passed handily with a score of 87, gave him a welcome chance to find out how he measured up.
He was pleased to discover that he had educated himself well and was up to speed on the latest horticultural techniques.
“It was a chance to test my principles of what good gardening is and of what works,” he says, noting he refers to himself as a plantsman. “To me it’s more apt; horticultural is a little bit hoity-toity to me.”
Mongerson is proud that while he was raised academically, his horticultural expertise is mostly self-taught while working in the trade.
“It shows how much older people actually know, but they don’t know that they know it,” he says of what a great teacher life experience can be.
He says often people doing manual labour offer up excuses for why they can’t do something – excuses such as ‘I can’t spell.’”
“They talk about not having credentials, but that doesn’t mean you don’t know as much as the ivory tower people,” he says. “There’s more than one way to get an education and in my career here, I have never come across anyone who didn’t assume I have credentials because I educated myself. The proof is in the garden.”
And while he is happy to still be able to fill his work days with plenty of outdoor maintenance, Mongerson occasionally casts a withering eye on McGuire Lake flora, much of which he planted and maintained.
“They don’t do it as well as I would have,” he chuckles. “Of course the standards are different.”
Mongerson also laments the big perennial and annual beds he once tended at Pioneer and Bastion.
“Now I don’t plant anything – I just resist the urge,” he says. “One of my principles is I’ve always felt a simple garden well-maintained is better than a a big, ambitious, overblown poorly maintained garden. That’s what it’s all about – maintenance.”