Communication and Design

A Second Kick at the Watering Can: Nenita Elphick’s Story

How Nenita blossomed from a lackluster gardener to a passionate student of landscape design.

I realized I had a brown thumb at the age of five after failing to get a lima bean to sprout like the rest of my Grade 1 classmates did.

From there, my supposed brown thumb persisted for decades — I even avoided owning plants. While I could tell a Christmas tree from a cactus, plants were mostly banal green backdrops to the infinitely more interesting art, architecture, and archaeology of my studies and travels.

I’m not sure when things changed but it was a slow, almost imperceptible creeping of curiosity. Was it the carpets of bluebells in Kent, the towering rhododendrons in Bhutan, or just the gorgeous flowering almond in my backyard?

Whatever it was, I found myself emailing Sam Benvie, Academic Coordinator for Landscape Design at The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education. Would I need prior botanical, drawing, or lima bean germination skills to take his class? Sam assured me I would not. So, I took a leap and enrolled in CKLA 320: Plant Materials in fall 2019.

It’s a good thing I did because I’ve rarely been so riveted. Sam has decades of experience in ecological landscape design. In addition to learning tree species and the fundamentals of sustainable landscape design, we had four field trips and the opportunity to participate in a collaborative landscape design competition in Kingston. Sam also organized student memberships to Landscape Ontario and a panel of landscape designers to speak about the industry.

Did you ever admire the colourful flower beds around the city and wonder how they do it? Michelle Reid, Manager of Horticulture and Greenhouses for the City of Toronto knows because it’s her day job. Michelle taught my next class, CKLA 420: Art and Management of Planting Design. In this course, we learned how to design, select, establish, and maintain planting schemes for residences and public parks.

Many of my fellow certificate students are enhancing their careers in architecture, design, horticulture, ethnobotany, landscaping, and maintenance. But for me — a recovering brown thumb — I’m just thrilled that continuing education finally gave me a second kick at the watering can.

For now, I’m getting my hands dirty, sowing seeds, nurturing plants, and sketching designs for future use. Better yet, with COVID-19 throwing so many plans into disarray, the certificate is fully online so I can continue to deepen my knowledge — even at a physical distance.


Nenita Ponce de León Elphick, PhD is Program Director of Arts at The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education. She focuses on student advising, adult education, and program design.