Now or Never

Terminal cancer diagnosis inspires Edmonton couple to create garden oasis

When life hands you lemons, you plant them? How one man turned his hatred for gardening into a landscaping do-over, after a diagnosis changed his family's life.

When Kimberly Ferland got sick, her husband Christopher built a garden of hope and healing

Kimberly and Christopher Ferland's backyard was inspired by Kimberly's love of all things daisy-shaped. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)
When his wife Kimberly was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Christopher Ferland started a backyard do-over that brought them hope and healing.

Christopher Ferland hated gardening. 

"Never in my wildest nightmares did I think I would be a gardener at all," he says as he prunes the hop-covered archway in the middle of his backyard.

"It seemed like it was torture."

But Christopher's perspective shifted in 2016 when his wife Kimberly was diagnosed with breast cancer.

After a year of radiation and mystery pain, they discovered the cancer had metastasized to her spine. Kimberly was given a terminal diagnosis.

"I heard: 'You have a year, maybe more,'" he remembered. "And so I was thinking if we have a year, maybe more, my job is to try and make this nice for her."

One of the Ferlands' favourite non-garden plants is fireweed, which they often find while hiking in Alberta's Rocky Mountains. 'It's one of the first flowers to show up after a fire and helps remediate the soil,' says Kimberly. (Submitted by Christopher Ferland)

A multi-phase approach

It started with bulldozing the backyard of their home in North Edmonton. 

He built raised beds, creating gravel paths and quiet pockets where Kimberly could enjoy her flowers, pull a weed and not feel like a patient.

For Christopher it was where he buried his anger and fear, trying to stay positive for his wife. It was also a place to give back, digging into the dirt to create a space for a woman who had given him so much. 

But for Kimberly, it seemed out of character for her anti-gardening husband.

"It was like a switch flipped and I didn't understand why," she said. "[It wasn't until] about phase four, when he ripped up the front yard."

Eventually the garden became a place where they could listen to each other's fears, and become a stronger team as they faced Kimberly's terminal diagnosis. 

The couple's front yard hasn't escaped renovation, and included Kimberly's favourite part: a rain garden designed and built by Christopher. (Submitted by Kimberly Ferland)

Growing resilience

While the garden brought Kimberly a place to find quiet and rest, it taught Christopher an entirely different lesson.

In the late 1990s when they first met in Vancouver, Christopher was addicted to crack cocaine. Kimberly met him as he entered support programs, and the two started their relationship with a very different dynamic.

'There's a hope for a future in gardening.'-- Kimberly Ferland

"It was just take, take, take," he remembered. "Gardening, for me, has taught me that if you just put in a little bit of work and have a little bit of vision, faith and hope, you can do something that's fruitful." 

Today their backyard features a fire pit, six different vegetable and flower beds and plants climbing on almost every wall and surface. The front includes a vine-covered wall, with a creek flowing into a rain garden. 

For both of them, the garden is a sign of trusting in the future. It also inspired their latest project.

Planting hope

This summer Christopher and Kimberly planted a cherry and an apple tree in what they call "the armpit" of their yard.

It was something they'd talked about for years but Kimberly never felt ready. She never knew if she'd be around to see them bloom.

Christopher and Kimberly took the plunge this year, and planted an apple (pictured) and cherry tree in the last untouched part of their yard. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

"I've put things on hold that I wish now I had the courage to do," she says. "I decided I'm not going to do that anymore. I'm not going to live like I'm dying."

"I'm going to choose life."

Planting the trees together was a way to build a promise into their backyard oasis, and continue their garden do-over by doing all they can while they still can. 

For Kimberly gardening is a reminder to look forward, and plan for what comes next.

"There's a hope for a future in gardening," she said.