Now Or Never

How a neighbour spread her mentor's beloved garden across a city

Minnie Schentag's garden was a labour of love for 45 years. When the 93-year-old had to move out of her home, the new owners planned an addition that would destroy the garden. But Schentag's former neighbour, Gail Howell, didn't want that to that happen.
Gail Howell shows her former neighbour Minnie Schentag photos of plants she rescued from Schentag's garden. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

For 45 years, Minnie Schentag's Winnipeg garden was a labour of love.  Full of vegetables and flowering plants, the garden took up more space at her Churchill Drive property than the modest bungalow where she and her husband, Joe, raised their four children.

"Minnie had the most stunning garden in the neighbourhood," said Gail Howell, who lives across the back lane. 

Last year Schentag, who is 93, decided it was time to sell the family home in the city's Riverview neighbourhood and move to an assisted living facility.  

When Howell went over to meet the new owners, she learned they planned to put an addition on the house and Schentag's gardens would be dug up.  They told Howell she was welcome to take any plants she wanted.

"This woman put her heart and soul into this property, and she meant so much to me as a mentor, I just couldn't see it destroyed," said Howell.  "No one was going to put any of Minnie's plants anywhere but in someone else's garden." 

Minnie Schentag (centre right) shows judges in a garden contest around her Churchill Drive property in this undated photo. (Supplied)

Schentag was 'unofficial greeting committee'

Schentag had been the first person Howell met when she moved to the area with her husband in 1995.

"Minnie came over as the unofficial greeting committee," recalled Howell.  

One of the first questions Schentag had for her new neighbour was whether or not she was a gardener. Howell said she'd like to be. It was the beginning of a bond that would develop over more than 20 years.

"She taught me some real important lessons," said Howell. "If I had a question on gardening I'd go over and ask her." 

The first plant Schentag gave Howell was this feverfew more than 20 years ago. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

Schentag offered advice, teaching Howell techniques to harvest seeds, split perennials, and what different species needed to thrive.  She also offered clippings from the garden that Howell so admired.

"I'd see little bags on the back patio and it would have a little snippet of a plant in it," said Howell. "It might be six months since I mentioned it, but she remembered what I wanted."

Saving the plants

Howell immediately sprang into action when the new owners of Schentag's property said she could help herself to the garden.

"I put out the word to my friends and they came with their spades," said Howell.

Gail Howell stands in Minnie Schentag's largest garden bed. She spent a week digging up the plants Schentag had grown for 45 years. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

Howell and her friends spent a week working to save what Schentag had grown for decades. They dug up enormous hostas, coneflowers that were three feet high, peonies that had bloomed beside Schentag's front door for decades.  

Howell replanted many of Schentag's plants in her garden. She gave plants to friends and filled in a memorial garden she maintains at a local church. Other plants she sold at a plant sale to raise money for charity, each pot carefully labelled, "Minnie's Legacy Garden."

"I'm very proud of how many gardens Minnie's garden has touched," said Howell.

Meanwhile, Schentag had no idea what had happened to her garden.  After her move, she had a stroke that left her paralyzed and affected her short term memory.  Schentag spent months in rehab learning to talk again and is now uses a walker.  She still misses her Churchill Drive home.

"I'll always remember it," said Schentag, "because it was home for 45 years."

This fall, Howell visited Schentag with a tablet full of photos of Howell's garden.  Schentag was delighted to see her neighbour for the first time in nearly a year, and to hear what Howell had done to preserve her beloved plants.

"Is that ever a nice thought," said Schentag. "I treasured the flowers. There's memories there."

Gail Howell visiting Minnie Schentag for the first time in a year to tell her how she preserved her plants and spread them to more than 25 gardens all over Winnipeg. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)

This originally aired in October, 2018.