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Juicy green secret lies just south of Calgary PDF Print E-mail
Written by Holly Hofmann   
Thursday, 12 August 2010 14:01

Gardens in Priddis feel more like a fun-house than a nursery

Taking the first few steps through the gate at Priddis Valley Gardens, it seems like a normal place that sells plants and garden ornaments. There are geraniums galore in every colour of the rainbow, petunias and potted herbs.

In five years, Kelly Tait has transformed a weeded lot into a garden centre where visitors are always welcome.
Photo: Holly Hofmann/Calgary Journal
Walk a few more feet and it starts to feel like you’ve stumbled into a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Eggbeaters fashioned into wind chimes dangle in the slow breeze. Water trickles from an old bathtub with a bent piece of copper tubing attached to a huge flower-petal fountain.  

A tiny lilac and lime-green shack with an untamed grass roof advertises beverages for sale. And everywhere you look, there are archways that seem to lead into different mystical worlds.

A path winds down to an open lawn where a hodgepodge of chairs and tables dot the grass. In the distance there is a wooden stage where bands play on weekends. The trail continues on into the trees, lined by dozens of lanterns, birdhouses and even a life-size man made out of moss.

Entrance is free of charge. The motto is, “Let yourself grow.”

The owner is not a wiry, “I’m gonna go grey naturally” hippie with a flowery, flowing skirt who is eternally stuck in 1969. Instead, she is Kelly Tait, a 40-something social worker who takes her summers off from counselling at-risk youth to tend to the madness: the sprawling, blueprint-lacking four acres that have been known as the Priddis Valley Gardens for the past five years.

“I spend anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day in the gardens,” Tait says, and it’s evident by her deep brown tan, which would make any fake-and-baker swoon with envy.

In a tattered apron and Crocs with heels worn down to a thin strip, she putters all summer long.  

Tait is as straight-shooting as they come, part of the reason she’s able to keep the kids she works with at Woods’ Homes in line during the winter months. She’s also clairvoyant, which might help explain why her approach to living is free of smokescreens.

If the mosquitoes are bad, she’ll offer some bug spray.

If you want to sit and have some coffee, she might go into her tiny, eggplant-purple and teal house to put on a fresh pot. And she’ll be happy to tell you why she’s built the gardens.

“I’ve traveled the world for 23 years and I’ve seen a lot of things,” Tait explains. “People need a place to go to that’s free and has no expectations. People need a place to go where they’re not judged.  People need a place to go to where they have space.

“You get all that here. And a feel-good factor too.”

For years, Tait lived in England and taught horticulture to people with disabilities and mental illnesses.  When she moved back to Canada, she had a vision of a garden where people could come for healing.

“I started cleaning the land and then I just started building. I always wanted to have the greenhouse. But things just started evolving,” she says.

It’s all kept going with plant sales, commissions on the artwork, ticketed events and Tait’s own salary as a social worker.

“I’m not motivated by money, but I am motivated by love and I’m motivated by joy,” she says. “It’s not about being rich, it’s about sustaining the projects we do. I say we: me, my dog and cat.”

Raymond, Tait’s teddy bear of a golden retriever who strolls around the gardens at leisure, is partly responsible for her decision not to use any pesticides or herbicides on the property.

“The honest truth is I’m not very bright. I tried using chemicals, and I didn’t know how to mix them. In the end, I said, ‘This is all bogus. Too much.’  

“I’m all about simplicity,” she adds. “I did one month of chemicals and said no, we have kids here. I’ve got my dog that rolls around in the grass. I want people to touch things, feel things.”

It means more work for her, but it’s not a manicured garden, so if weeds pop up, she’s not worried about it. To take care of some of the pests, she hosts an annual Festival of the Ladybug event where over 100,000 ladybugs are released into the gardens.

This past May, over 200 people attended the festival. Still, the gardens – eight minutes down the road from Spruce Meadows going west on Highway 22X – are relatively unknown, despite wads of money spent on advertising.

Tait will be the first to admit that she is not exactly a businesswoman, but she says she’s lucky because last year three sisters stumbled upon her gardens. “They have brought their love here and their inspiration and they want to see this place succeed.”

Rosanna D’Agnillo, one of the three sisters and a classical singer, says, “Some people are put in the universe to provide for others – that’s who Kelly is down to the marrow of her bones.”

D’Agnillo has been working hard this summer to plan and promote events that will help fund the gardens so programs such as gardening therapy and art camps for children can expand.

“It’s therapeutic for kids to work with dirt and plants,” she says, describing the sense of wonder and peace people of all ages feel when they are there.  

For Tait, part of the healing process is about having the open space. When a person is not emotionally at ease, she says, their bubble is bigger.


Photo: Jayme Kuzyk

(above) Kelly Tait and her dog, Raymond, (below) spend summer days in the sun at Tait’s Priddis Valley Gardens.


Photo: Jayme Kuzyk

“We have people who come in here that are cut off from themselves emotionally and they’re just like, ‘Wow, it’s like being a kid again,’” Tait says.

As for the music events, D’Agnillo describes them as a family-friendly, relaxing way to spend a summer evening.  

“Come sit outside and bring a blanket,” she says. “Kids get in free.”

Some of August’s events include a classical music brunch, a pig roast, a ladies’ night and a children’s music festival.

Musician Brendan Russell of the Calgary band Sam the Jet says playing in the gardens reminds him of something you’d see more of in British Columbia:

“It’s got that eclectic, do-your-own-thing kind of feel.”

As for Tait, she says the gardens continue to evolve and will never be finished.

A maze was recently planted and she plans to put a bridge over to the island on the property, build a glass house and even create a floating deck.  

And she always welcomes more artists to add to the space.  

“Every person who walks in here contributes,” she says. “They bring in a little bit of themselves. I’m only the caretaker.”

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