Black Creek snakes through a leafy ravine in Jane-Finch, a neighbourhood in northwest Toronto that often makes headlines for crime, poverty and, this year, high rates of coronavirus infection. A paved pathway follows a branch of the stream. People from the surrounding high-rises, townhouses and bungalows use it to run, bike, walk their dogs or just go for a pleasant stroll away from the busy streets and crowded quarters above.
Travel along the path on any given day from April to November and you are likely to see an old man working on a big terraced garden that emerges from the slope of the ravine. Sometimes he is bending to uproot the weeds that threaten to reclaim his plot; other times he is strewing seeds for next year’s flowers or carrying buckets of water up from the creek. He is there twice a day, seven days a week, rain or shine. The result is a work of love and perseverance his friends call Rudy’s Garden.
Rudolf Riske grew up in Poland in the years between the world wars. When Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded and divided the country in 1939, many families of German ancestry like his were relocated to Germany.
He was drafted into the army at the age of 17. Dispatched to help repel the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, he was captured by the Americans on his first day. Many of his fellow soldiers were not as lucky. A wounded man died on his lap as they huddled in a French barn. Most of his company was wiped out.
He spent two years as a prisoner of war, then returned to his family in a ruined Germany. In 1963, he emigrated to Canada, following in the steps of an older brother. A carpenter and cabinetmaker, he found a job in construction and worked himself up to supervisor, helping to build many of the schools that went up during Toronto’s postwar boom. He and his wife moved into a house in Jane-Finch with a farmer’s field across the street. They have lived there ever since, watching the quiet suburb becoming a teeming landing pad for newcomers from around the globe.
When he retired, Mr. Riske busied himself building furniture for his friends and family. The garden came about by accident. He was walking in the ravine one day when he saw a swampy patch by the river. He noticed a few bluebells peaking out and took pity on them, “they were making such an effort to come through.” He decided to drain the patch and clear the weeds. A whole sea of bluebells emerged.
Mr. Riske was off to the races. He started digging plots for other flowers. To keep them from washing away in the rain, he cut up fallen trees and used the logs to build terraces. As the terraces climbed up the slope, he built steps to reach them. He built another set down to the creek so that he could fetch water. He used a scythe to cut the grass. He pulled up thorns and thistles. He pruned the black walnut trees that shade the slope.
He has been at it for 10 years now. The work never stops. Mr. Riske is in the ravine four or five hours a day at the height of summer, riding down from his house on his Canadian Tire bicycle once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Rabbits and deer dine on his blooms. Thieves take his plants when he isn’t there. They have stolen his shovels, his rakes, his scythe and even his birdhouses.
But, oh, the rewards! Mr. Riske still gets a thrill from seeing a sprig of green “burst out from the soil” or a plant come into flower. There is always something blooming in Rudy’s Garden. Tulips and daffodils rise in the spring, then a profusion of irises. Summer brings orange daylilies and yellow black-eyed Susans. Even now, in the garden’s dying days, the slope is awash in the pinks and purples of asters, flox and echinacea. “Everything you see here was done with my two hands,” Mr. Riske says.
Others take pleasure in his work, too. Passersby are always stopping to admire his garden in the wild. Some pitch in. This summer, a mother and her daughters hauled bucket after bucket up from the stream to help him water.
On Friday, neighbours and local dignitaries gathered at the garden in person and by video to thank him for bringing “beauty and happiness” to the neighbourhood. The timing was deliberate. It was Mr. Riske’s 95th birthday.
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