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Toronto Real Estate Toronto’s Manulife building: Where the grass is always greener

Derek Lelievre, Manulife’s chief horticulturalist at 200 Bloor St. E., stands on the front lawn of the Manulife building in Toronto.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Trust me, I looked.

Down on my hands and knees, reading glasses on, I looked for everyone in Toronto, and, indeed, for myself at the tender age of 10, when I’d walk by with my mom almost weekly after getting my allergy shot.

Not. One. Single. Weed. Not even some clover.

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“You might find one,” says Derek Lelievre, Manulife’s chief horticulturalist at 200 Bloor St. E. “Every once in a while one creeps in on us.”

As if on cue, Mariusz Maj, another of the four-person landscape team, produces pruning shears – an unusual choice – from a gunslinger-like holster and quickly plucks out a dandelion.

“So there’s your one,” Mr. Lelievre finishes with a wry smile.

It takes a lot of pruning, patience, dedication and downright love to produce what is probably the most beautiful front lawn in Toronto. And it’s been beautiful since 1926, a year after architect Henry Sproatt and Ernest Rolph’s stately building opened on what was, then, a rather empty stretch of Bloor Street.

Mariusz Maj, horticulturalist at Manulife for 25 years, uses an electric lawn mower in order to trim down a section of grass at the Manulife building lawn in Toronto.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Such a prominent, columned building – one surrounded by a handsome fence similar to that at Osgoode Hall – needed landscaping to match, so W.H. Gordon, then Manufacturer’s Life’s chief horticulturalist, visited his friend at the Scarborough Golf and Country Club (founded in 1912) to borrow some creeping bentgrass. Tending to it on the west side of the building for a year to ensure it could thrive, it was installed fully; and since no turf replacement has ever been done east of the building’s front door, it’s likely that original lawn’s great, great, grandblades are what’s underfoot.

“Could be,” says the lanky, tanned fifty-something, “’cause the crowns will survive the winter and they’ll regrow.”

And speaking of being underfoot, the staff at Manulife – even the serious suits who toil, many floors up, on global financial projects – encourage non-Manulife workers, passersby, the ever-increasing number of condo-dwellers and tourists, to all come by and walk on the lawn, or spread a blanket over it and eat their lunch.

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“A lot of people don’t think it’s real,” Mr. Lelievre offers, adding that there are 25 to 30 benches on the almost three-hectare property to encourage visits.

The Manulife staff encourage non-Manulife workers and passersby to come by and walk on the lawn, or spread a blanket over it and eat their lunch.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Those that do spend an hour luncheoning or walking the pathways of this green oasis will see just how little time the horticulture team spend idle, too: Both the creeping bentgrass and the more common Kentucky bluegrass (south of the flagpole) are cut with a special, electric Toro mower on Mondays and Thursdays – the bentgrass is trimmed, 1950s buzz-cut style, to a 1/2 inch, while the Bluegrass is kept to 3 1/2 inches – and fertilized every four weeks with diluted fertilizer to ensure that there is “a consistent growth.

“A lot of times you’ll get peaks and valleys because you’ll fertilize and it’ll grow, grow, grow and then it kind of drops off at the end,” Mr. Lelievre explains.

The result? A carpet so dense, weeds don’t have room in which to pop their fuzzy little heads (the team does not use any chemicals or pesticides).

The watering schedule for both lawns is the same also, and advanced sensors ensure drops are not wasted. As an example, Mr. Lelievre says that the night before my morning visit, sensors told him to run the system for exactly nine minutes. And, if rain gauges on the property detect a quarter-inch or more of rainfall, everything is shut down for 48 hours. Water reduction has been achieved the old fashioned way, too, by replacing most of the grass on the west side of the building with flowerbeds; some of these contain butterfly- and bee-friendly plants, and others an Indigenous medicine garden tended to by the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.

Bobby Lee, gardener and groundskeeper at Manulife, tends to the hedges around Kirk Newman's Community sculpture at Manulife's head office.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

And about those flowers: While Mr. Lelievre, who got his start on golf courses, admits there was a “learning curve” to understanding them, in his 15 years at Manulife he’s really come to enjoy plotting out what he and Mr. Maj (and groundskeepers Bobby Lee and Kelly Maloney) will feature each spring. In 2018, for instance, the beds lining the 1925 building featured a tropical theme: “So we had silver fan palms and crotons, and we had hens-and-chickens, which are succulents, across the front … and then before that we had purple banana plants, and they grew up 10 feet tall.” Around this time each year, the crew begins discussions on next year’s themes, colours and densities, working with both computer software and simple cut-and-paste mood boards to come up with three designs to debate.

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In winter, they keep busy with snow removal (there are almost 3,000 people working at this multibuilding complex), tending to the conventional indoor plants and the three living-walls. There are also three beehives towards the very back of the property (which backs onto Rosedale Valley) and a few green roofs to manage.

And, no matter what time of year, there are the inevitable questions: “Everyday,” he smiles. “It’s either grass tips or plant tips. … It’s nice that it’s a free resource for everybody. And a lot of times we’re the first employees that people see when they come in in the morning.

“I have a lot of people that come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I’d love to put this in my front yard,’ and I talk them out of it.”

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

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