Cultivating Toronto’s topiary curb appeal

Gardeners of the Gardiner quietly tend to Canada’s best known branded entryway.

It’s a hill like no other.

Sure, there are important roads and highways that splinter off from Hwy. 401, and cut into the downtown core. And you can make a case for coming at it from the water and see the CN Tower loom into view.

But if Toronto has a front door to the world – about half the population are foreign-born – it’s built against the Gardiner Expressway. But then, someone has to be responsible for keeping up that curb appeal.

In this case, it’s the gardeners of the Gardiner.

For the past three decades, there’s been a dedicated group, along with their partners and corporate sponsors, responsible for the topiary displays on the hillside to the north of the Gardiner, just before you enter the busy downtown section. Well over 350,000 people – and as many as 500,000 – pass by the line of 11 logos each day.

Those travelers drive along the expressway as well as, even closer to the embankment display, see it go by from inside GO Trains that move past every 15 minutes. The land the signs rest on is owned by Metrolinx which partners with Hillside Media Communications Ltd., the firm that tends to the landmarks.

“You get the eye contact,” says David Klein, manager of Hillside Media. “If they’re not on their phones, they’re looking out the windows.”

Klein is standing on the Sunnyside Pedestrian Bridge over the Gardiner, on a chilly day, looking eastward down the line of logos embossed in greenery. They run from Roncesvalles Ave. to Dowling Ave., adjacent to the GO Transit Lakeshore West rail line. Today it’s a well-groomed stretch, almost a kilometre long. Even during the winter months, when everything seems to be painted in tones of grey and brown, the hillside signage is kept clean and even snow is routinely blown off the corporate logos.

As seen in the 1980s, the section of hillside was once filthy and filled with trash and debris. The backdrop is a billboard promoting the old Seahorse Motel.

A section of the hillside of the Gardiner sits neglected back in the 1980s.

A corporate logo promoting CGI sits on the well tended hillside. Tracks run just in front of the logo.

A portion of the hillside seen recently, the grass is well tended and a corporate logo for CGI is clean and well tended.

But three-decades ago, this was a wasteland. Trash built up, along with debris from past constructions. A nearby hotel billboard that read “Treat your best gal” seemed to ignore the eyesore beside the main artery into Toronto.

“No one was taking responsibility (for the area),” recalls Toronto historian and long-time newspaper columnist Mike Filey.

“It was a place for papers and junk to gather.”

As the city was preparing for the 1988 G7 Summit of world leaders, Gerry Mahoney – who would often drive by the section – proposed turning it from a wasteland to a marquee display. To do that meant carting away 23 tonnes of garbage, and bringing in corporate sponsors like Manulife Financial. Soon after, others, including CN, Deloitte and FedEx, joined to have their emblems etched in marble chipped stone and green yews – the 1,500 to 2,000 small, hearty shrubs used in each logo. Flowering crabapple trees are lined like sentries just above.

These many years later, Mahoney still works in the greenhouse that grows the plants, including daffodils and 15 varieties of native Toronto wild flowers, for the displays. The idea is to have constantly changing colours, few falling leaves and slow growth.

Stacey Greenberg, manager of national sponsorships for Deloitte, says the company is proud of having space on the hill for 25 years.

“Being a part of the Hillside Topiary is an effective way to reach our clients and support our branding efforts,” she explains in an email exchange. “This landmark is viewed by hundreds of thousands of people each day as it is located at the gateway to Toronto.

“We are additionally pleased that the Hillside displays are unique and environmentally friendly.”

No pesticides are ever used on the hill.

Carved into a corner of Parkdale, the topiary arrangements are unique around the world – using a natural canvass of a hillside that slants at the perfect angle to the rail-line, expressway and Lake Ontario just beyond.

“We’re a bit of an oasis here,” says Klein. “And we even have our own ecosystem, because we’re so close to the lake.”

David Klein stands looking up at the camera, as he stops on a green pedestrian walkway next to the Gardiner. Over his shoulder is a line of corporate logos built into the hill.

David Klein stands on a pedestrian overpass near the corporate logo hillside he watches over.

But a remarkable curb appeal takes a constant vigil against all the elements.

The 2013 ice storm that closed the CN Tower and saw 40,000 Ontario residents without power also destroyed 60 per cent of the topiary’s plants.

Then there’s the cat-and-mouse game played with graffiti artists who tag nearby walls. Crews jump in to cover over the illegal spray-painting quickly, but it’s a constant battle.

While staff, and those who manage the strip, provide the green thumbs which work throughout the year, Klein says it’s partners, including Metrolinx, as well as the corporations that trust their good names to the topiary artists, who deserve the credit.

That recognition couldn’t be prominent.

Story by Thane Burnett, Metrolinx Manager of Editorial Content