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Meet Donna Costanzo, the Toronto Music Garden’s dutiful caretaker

Visit the Toronto Music Garden, a delightful park at the western end of the city's harbourfront, and you might spy a woman with a sun-bronzed face bending over a flowerbed in a muddy fluorescent work coat. Meet gardener Donna Costanzo, friend of bees and flowers, enemy of litterbugs and plant-tramplers and all-round champion of this special place.

Though the Music Garden is a public park, and she is a unionized parks worker like any other, supervising the garden for the past four years – she can name the day she started: Dec. 12, 2012 – has left her with a fierce devotion to this little plot by the water.

"It's like ownership. It's mine. I'm not just here and gone," she says over coffee across the street on the refurbished Queens Quay. "This is a reflection on me. This shows what I am made of. In a sense, that holds you accountable. You can't just walk away from it."

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Call it The Constant Gardener model. Simply putting someone in charge can do wonders for the upkeep of public spaces.

In her 57 years, Ms. Costanzo has taught English, done lots of writing, made quilts, helped immigrants get settled and worked with the homeless, but her passion is plants. She has run a landscaping business in Montreal, laboured in a Toronto nursery, volunteered growing native trees from seed at an arboretum in Guelph and helped foster native plants in High Park. She joined the parks department as a seasonal worker in 2000 and still spends her winters plowing snow and picking up scraps of paper along the waterfront. Asked what we gain from gardens, she answers with one word: "life."

She gets to the park at about 6:30 every morning from April through October. She does a walkabout, checking for litter and damage to the plants and trees. She assigns tasks to fellow workers, then gets down to work herself, digging, weeding, pruning, planting – all the endless work that comes with the ever-changing organism that is a living garden.

Her current project is replanting one section of the garden to prevent people from taking advantage of the tall-grass cover to lie down and sleep. She is also putting in poppies, orange foxtail lilies and other bright flowers to add more colour. She is dying to see the garden in its "new party dress."

If only every park had such a protector. Many Toronto parks suffer from a lack of personal attention. Maintained by transient squads of parks workers with no attachment to the spaces they visit, they grow shabby and weedy, taking on that neglected look that comes when no one is in control. It is a particular problem for high-end specialty parks that demand sophisticated maintenance.

At Canoe Landing, a creative park just minutes from the Music Garden, the developer complains that city workers ran a lawn mower through the rose bushes, let the lawn turn ragged and took a year just to replace one letter – the "O" – in the Canoe Landing sign. You can see similar signs of inattention in public spaces all over town – chipped benches, patios sprouting weeds, busted fountains with no running water.

The Music Garden stands apart. Although it has been 17 years since it opened, it still looks in top shape.

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One reason springs from the unusual circumstances of its birth. Celebrated American cellist Yo-Yo Ma and well-known U.S. landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy helped design the three-acre space, which calls itself "a reflection in landscape of Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello." The garden's six sections – Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuets and Gigue – are named after the piece's six movements and inspired by music and dance. Visitors can take a tour led by guides playing Bach from boom boxes or tour the garden themselves with hand-held audio players. Summers bring free concerts overlooking the harbour.

Ms. Messervy still keeps a watchful eye on her creation. One of her associates visited recently to talk about how to rebuild part of the garden understory overshadowed by spreading trees. The man whose donations helped build the park, businessman and philanthropist Jim Fleck, comes down to look over the gardens, too. The fact that the donors and creators still feel they have a stake in it makes a difference.

It helps that one person, Ms. Costanzo, is in charge of the upkeep. It means that instead of just calling 311 or trying to find who in the vast city bureaucracy is responsible, visitors can come straight to her with beefs.

She insists she keeps the Music Garden in such fine form only with the help of her place-proud co-workers: three fellow gardeners (Linda, Arthur and Mal) and two "handyworkers" (Rob and Doug) who cut the lawns, pick up paper and empty the garbage bins. She says staff cutbacks are at least part of the reason why some parks aren't as well-kept as they should be.

Still, having a point person is invaluable. Several high-end Toronto parks, such as Edwards Gardens, have a chief like Ms. Costanzo – what the city calls a "lead hand." Some others, like Kew Gardens, have dedicated gardening staff.

In New York, parks have signs identifying the park manager, notes Dave Harvey, executive director of Park People, a Toronto group that promotes community involvement in the city's parks. The Toronto Transit Commission was guided by the same principle when it appointed managers to oversee its busy subway stations, giving them responsibility for troubleshooting and fielding complaints.

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Ms. Costanzo sees red when visitors abuse her domain. They urinate (and worse) in the bushes, leave dog waste (bagged and unbagged) and, yes, tromp right through the flowerbeds, compacting the soil and suffocating the roots. "They're standing on the lungs of the plants," she says. "It just blows my little mind that people can't see these are living things."

She has even had people pitch tents in her rarefied garden, not an obvious place to camp out. Because of her work with the homeless, she has lots of sympathy, but when she arrives in the morning to find someone bunked down among the plants, she just says, in a loud voice, "Sun's up, you're on your way. I've got gardening to do."

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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