Landscape design

Story of an Alley

I am lucky enough to live in a neighborhood of Quebec City filled with alleys: Limoilou. These spaces, which are not “really” streets, are used for multiple purposes: parking, extensions of courtyards, passage for pedestrians and cyclists, space for collective creations. What I like about these places is that they can be modeled and transformed according to the aspirations of local residents. Moreover, if you have the chance to walk these alleys during a beautiful summer day, I find that it offers a whole new perspective on our city.

My alley was far from the idyllic model that we often see on the web. Poorly maintained, full of potholes, garbage, and a rather gray general appearance. It didn’t really have a soul of its own. I had known for a long time that it was possible to get funding and support to transform an alley from the City of Quebec. However, the lack of time constantly postponed this project. Luckily, a neighbor decided to take the lead and initiate this new project. She collected signatures, built a case and submitted our application. And we were been selected! How lucky! We were going to have full support of the Nature Quebec organization, in addition to receiving money to start the project.

The alley today

Take Action

We put a small committee in place and started a first season. I am well aware that the project I am talking about was carried out with external help. No matter the budget or the time, I strongly encourage you to transform these vacant spaces that are just waiting to be greened! I learned a lot during this first involvement. It is in order to motivate you to take action that I share with you today some small thoughts related to my experience.

You can never say it enough: gardening brings people together. I met several neighbors during the greening of my alley (I say my alley, but don’t worry, I know it’s not mine haha)! A common project breaks the isolation and above all the embarrassment that can keep us from getting in touch. We pool ideas, we build bins, we bring out our artistic flair, we shovel dirt, we sweat a bit, we plant and laugh. The curious ones watch from their balcony, others join in or ask questions. If you only knew how it changes the atmosphere of a place! Investing in the alley has greatly increased my sense of belonging to this place I have played a part in bringing it back to life.

An Environment That Can Be Hostile

However, I won’t lie, undeveloped alleys are quite often rather hostile places for the establishment of plants. Compacted soil, questionable fertility, presence of debris and stones. If you have a pickaxe handy for digging, get it out now! Also, if you have a small budget, invest in the purchase of compost to give a little boost to future plants.

I wondered a lot about the choice of plants. As I come from a more “agricultural” background, I intended to put vegetables everywhere. Looking back, well, I changed my mind. Vegetable plants are often demanding. They require regular care in addition to regular irrigation and fertilization. An alley or a vacant place belongs to everyone and no one at the same time. Despite good intentions, it is possible that watering is poor and care, sporadic. We therefore want hardy, vigorous plants that thrive in a poor environment.

Perennial vines and sunflowers

Choose Tenacious Plants!

I’m no expert on ornamental perennials, but I tried a few things that worked surprisingly well! Those who have perennial beds know it: there always comes a time when you inevitably have to divide plants before they take up all available space. I asked around and easily found people who could give me some of their surplus. In fact, everyone was really happy to help me. I saw a great opportunity to green the alley inexpensively while trying lots of new things. So here are my big winners: ornamental grasses, daylilies of all kinds, irises, astilbes, hostas and goat’s beard. Nice selection, isn’t it? Two years later, without any special care, everyone is still alive!

Several perennials coexist

A Bit of Color

Another observation made in season: color brightens hearts! Several residents wanted to give way to their imagination and paint the alley. We put color on the bins (that were all made of reclaimed wood!). We transformed old tires from a nearby garage into multicolored flower boxes. We even put color on the electric poles (did we have the permission?). A friend made some pennant garlands with fabrics found at a thrift store. By gleaning these objects around us, we managed to create a small colorful oasis.

Tire manufacturing
Manufacture of bins

The highlight of the show: we were able to pay a local artist to create a beautiful mural! Watching him work has captivated many residents and the end result is decidedly more interesting than a gray concrete wall. Have no fear, we had asked permission from the building owner before applying all this color!

I also learned to let go. As a horticulturist, I have developed a small obsession with the maintenance of landscapes, edible or not. My job is, among other things, to take care of vegetable gardens, but also to maintain its aesthetics throughout the season. We replace the plants that have had a hard life, we prune, we fertilize, we stake, we remove the weeds. It was difficult for me to let go of all these professional distortions and accept that I was not in control. Let nature take full control. We plant and we will see what happens!

The mural under construction
The finished mural

Just Benefits

Without listing all the ecosystem benefits associated with the transformation of the alley, it is still interesting to highlight some of them. All these new plants allow the capture and absorption of water during heavy rains. Their foliage helps to counter the heat island effect of a mostly concrete alley and we have notice the return of several small birds and insects of all kinds. I would be very curious to see a before/after case study calculating several parameters related to the environment and social impact.

For the future? Keep an eye out, sitting on the terrace, and watch the alley get greener, improving it a little more each season.

Behind all these descriptions, I humbly seek to motivate you to take action and reclaim these vacant public spaces. No need for a large administrative structure or five-year budgets. These transformations are accessible at the end of your shovel, your drill, your brush. The greatest risk is to improve your network, have fun, win a few smiles and beautify your living environment. 

The Devil’s Croque-livres!

Marie-Andrée is the urban farm manager and a trainer at Urbainculteurs, where she has been working since 2015. She plans and supervises the production of Jardins du bassin Louise, an urban vegetable farm with a social and educational vocation. Outstanding at teaching, she also co-hosts the podcast Mâche-patate and is one of the main trainers of the Urbainculteurs online training course. Les Urbainculteurs is a non-profit organization, based in Quebec since 2009. Their mission: to develop and promote a productive, accessible and responsible urban agriculture for the benefit of organizations and individuals, in order to increase food security, improve our living environments and promote an ecological transition.

4 comments on “Story of an Alley

  1. What a fabulous project. Hopefully others will be inspired and take similar actions. So many alleys awaiting beautification.

  2. Christine Lemieux

    Really lovely to read about this project!

  3. We always enjoy exploring alleys -hope you can keep us posted about further alley developments.


  4. What a wonderful effort by your neighbours & you

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