During the Afghanistan war, Canada lost 158 men and women. Their bodies, once repatriated at CFB Trenton, were driven to the coroner’s office in Toronto.
A very Canadian thing happened during those years. People gathered on bridges along Highway 401 to wave flags, shed tears and quietly acknowledge the sacrifices of those who died in Afghanistan. The 170-km stretch of the 401 became known as the Highway of Heroes.
About two years ago, a bunch of tree-loving people thought that it would be a wonderful enhancement to the Highway of Heroes if it were planted with trees.
They would clean the atmosphere, cool the environment, provide a more attractive drive down an otherwise ugly stretch of asphalt and would create a living legacy to our war dead.
The Highway of Heroes Living Tribute was born.
Nov. 4 marked the first anniversary of the official launch of the Highway Of Heroes Living Tribute and much has happened since.
Almost 12,000 trees have been planted. Last spring, we planted 3,000 trees on lands adjacent to and on the Highway of Heroes. By this autumn we will have planted another 8,700 trees in various places along the highway and on adjacent lands.
The members of Landscape Ontario have stepped up. On a sunny Saturday in May this year, we planted 350 large trees at Glen Miller Road and the 401 in Trenton. Members of Landscape Ontario arrived with seven pieces of heavy equipment to dig holes and move earth and mulch. For every dollar in cash that we invested in trees that day, another $3 was donated in kind from landscapers, nursery tree growers and others. Landscape Architect Scott Wentworth deserves special mention for pulling this one off.
We have seen corporate-sponsored groups like Corix Water Services, which brought more than 25 people out on a rainy day in mid-May. Military families have shown up in work boots to help at our work sites, such as the Vardy family who came from Innisfil to the Keele Street location on that same rainy day. When I think about the outpouring of support that we have received, I want to cry.
The Garden Club of Toronto has a long history of giving back to the community. This year, they donated cash and their own in-kind services. Twenty club members showed up, many with their husbands willingly in tow, to help plant and mulch more than 400 trees and shrubs at the coroner’s office in May.
The Ontario Horticulture Association has raised more than $30,000 — in its first year at this. We are overwhelmed by the gesture.
This year our campaign received a huge boost when we received a grant from Growing Forward, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The goal is to use the resources at Vineland Research Centre to determine best practices for planting on highway right-of-ways. Highways are notoriously hostile towards tree growth.
Dr. Darby McGrath, who leads this program from Vineland, is excited that we will finally have protocols in effect that will ensure an acceptable measure of success when planting on highways.
Monies have been set aside to create a plan for planting, prepare planting sites and to pay for trees. As McGrath says, “With the Highway of Heroes Living Tribute, we have identified key barriers to tree survival and have developed methods for remediating urban soils and improving tree survival.”
We do not want to plant trees that will die, but rather, thrive and grow for generations.
McGrath is an enthusiastic supporter of the Highway of Heroes Living Tribute. When asked what her motivation is for being involved she says, “I love trees and I love Canada. I am so grateful to live in a country where we show a respect for the sacrifice of our fallen by planting a tree in their honour. I think it is quintessentially Canadian to create a tribute to the loss of a soldier through the planting of a tree. As a tree symbolizes life, strength and peace.”
This is a massive tree-planting project that provides all of the environmental benefits imagined plus a living acknowledgement of a very important element in our history.
All of this is to say that we could not do this without you, your interest in our campaign, your volunteer hours and donations.
Please visit hohtribute.ca and sign up for our monthly newsletter and to learn more.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new book, The New Canadian Garden, published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.