Chris Allen is a man of many talents.
He could easily be described as a Renaissance man — someone who has a high level of skills in many areas, creative, and good at whatever he turns his hands to.
This week, and every week for the next five months, that means he can be found on Queen Street every day, from early in the morning when the street is quiet until he is finished his meticulous tending of the many window boxes and gardens he tends for his clients, and the beautification of the town he loves.
He’s best known for the floral display that surrounds the Shaw Cafe, a scene that is sure to stop passersby with their cameras, but there are other businesses that benefit from his high standards, including The Epicurean, Serendipity, and a stretch of businesses along King Street — the Irish Harp, Simpson’s Pharmacy, Grill on King and the Bosley Real Estate office.
Allen spent a large chunk of his working life working for boat builders, when that industry was one of the largest in town. He started at Shepherd Boat Works, with their much sought-after mahogany boats; then it was on to Hinterhoeller Yachts, and finally C&C Yachts until it closed in the early 90s. They all produced exceptionally high-quality boats, and he had worked in every part of the plant, he says. “I’d still be there if I could. It was very rewarding.”
Allen says when C&C closed, he had to ask himself what he would turn his hand to next. “I looked at what else would appeal to me. I know I liked the outdoors, and plants.”
And NOTL “is a great gardening town,” he says.
He has good clients — as many as he can handle — who let him do whatever he wants to do, “as long as it looks good.”
And it’s his nature that if he’s going to do a job, he does it well.
His goal is always to ensure the gardens and boxes he plants look full, lush and colourful immediately, ready for visitors to town to admire.
And they do, he says, often stopping to comment.
He buys most of his plant material at Mori Gardens and Regal Florist, but this year, not all the varieties he usually plants were available, although he was pleased with the selection they had. He loads up his Taurus, he says, and gets everything planted in one week.
“I like my gardens to be eye-catching, really over-the-top, packed full. I have a creative style of planting, and it really does seem to work.”
And although he has a distinctive style, he makes sure each one looks a little different.
Once the planting is finished, he is downtown every day, watering, trimming, deadheading blooms and making sure his plantings continue to look their best. “They have to look great for five months, and if anything happens to them, I can’t replace them. I don’t take a day off.”
He is grateful to his clients that they all said to go ahead this year “and do it the way you always do,” despite the fact they didn’t know if or when they would be able to open.
It’s definitely labour-intensive, he says, but it’s become a tradition that he is determined to maintain.
As busy as he is during the five gardening months of the year, Allen finds time to pursue his other interests, especially in the winter.
He is a collector of artifacts, with a love of local history, volunteering for the NOTL Museum’s collection management commitee. He is described by the museum as having “a keen eye for identifying significant pieces that tell the story of our town. An avid collector himself, he has donated hundreds of artifacts to the museum’s collection over the years and has contributed to several of our exhibitions.”
His love of collecting artifacts, and for town history, began when he was about 10 years old, he says, when he would search for cannonballs and other remnants of the area’s military history. Over the years, as the town got built over two or three times, he says, they became harder to find, although he didn’t give up looking. One of the “odd jobs” he continues to do is digging cremation holes for St. Mark’s Cemetery. He describes them as about 12 inches by eight inches, and almost two feet deep to allow for soil on top of a tall urn. “St. Mark’s now has a designated cremation area, but many are placed in front of already-existing family stones which are all over the entire, very historic graveyard,” he says. It can be difficult, given the many big, old trees and their roots, he adds, and on occasion runs into another previous early grave, or bones, since early records are not always accurate. “It’s interesting work, as I often know personally who I am digging for . . . and you never know what might turn up.”
He worked for the Shaw Festival when it first arrived in town — lots of locals helped out and were involved in getting the theatre going, he says. He worked in sets and props, and also did a short stint in Toronto with the Canadian Opera Company.
Allen was also involved in the early days of the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, and has restored the water pump outside the building a few times. He’s been an artist all his life, he says, interested in designing jewelry, sculpting and woodworking, and has had his work on display at the Pumphouse.
More recently, he’s been involved in a project to preserve the Teenie H, a fishing boat built in 1939 and one of the oldest still in existence locally.
This past winter, he says, he restored a 100-year-old Walter Dean-designed Sunnyside Torpedo canoe, a very rare find, he says. It was in the rafters of a friend’s garage, and Allen finally convinced his friend to part with it. After spending months “bringing it back to life,” he expects he will donate it to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough.
But for now, he’s concentrating his time downtown, doing one of the jobs he loves. He especially likes the atmosphere early in the morning, when the streets are empty and quiet, except for the few locals out for their morning exercise, or walking their dogs.
“People come up to me and thank me for doing it, because everything looks so full, bright and cheerful. I just create the look — the business owners make it possible.”