On a quiet residential corner of Montreal's St-Henri neighbourhood, plots of dirt carved out of the sidewalk, each hosting a solitary tree, have become verdant oases along the city block.

Through a free borough-run program that allows residents to adopt sidewalk tree plantings, local tenants have turned several of the roughly two-square-metre parcels into their own small gardens, some of them now bursting with daisies and hosta.

Just in its second year of operation, the program has been a catalyst for numerous social, environmental and commercial benefits, residents say.

And its popularity is growing. In 2022, Montreal's Southwest borough, which includes St-Henri, counted 253 participants and 407 adopted squares. So far in 2023, there are 411 participants caring for 613 squares, according to Marie-Joëlle Fluet, the borough official who co-ordinates the program.

"It's a nice way to participate in my neighbourhood," Geneviève Laplante, who adopted a square in front of her apartment building, said in a recent interview. "I get out of my car and I see my little plot of land and it's just fun checking out my flowers."

Though encouraging community involvement in urban greening efforts is the main goal of tree square adoption, Fluet touted "all sorts of benefits" in a recent interview, "whether it's social, recreation … the environment, public health, cleanliness" or creating "social links."

Laplante, for example, recounted how she turned gardening in her tree square into a community activity by involving her neighbour's children.

Around the corner, another resident, Geneviève Leblanc, said she adopted three squares near her apartment in hopes of mitigating the heat that rises from the street and reducing what she described as the foul smell of nearby rainwater drains.

Fluet further noted that the gardens discourage littering, promote biodiversity and protect the health of the trees they surround, potentially extending their lives.

Montrealers are planting sidewalk gardens thanks to a free borough-run program.

The tree square gardens are also good for business, according to Kamila Bryla, owner of sandwich shop and pierogi purveyor Goplana, in the Southwest's Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood, where the local business development organization began co-ordinating tree square adoptions in January.

Thirty-three plots are under the organization's tutelage this year. Its director, Francis Blouin, hopes to at least double participation in 2024.

"It's absolutely fantastic," Bryla declared, saying she and her staff help care for the plants. "It's much nicer. It brings more clients."

On Saturday, the business owner was outside grilling sausages by the long line of sidewalk gardens in front of her Charlevoix Street eatery to celebrate its 17th anniversary. For the occasion, Goplana set up benches, a table and chairs in between the gardens.

"Our clients, our community … is definitely appreciating it." Bryla added. "We've received a lot of good comments."

There are similar sidewalk garden programs in seven other Montreal boroughs, each with their own rules. In the Southwest, participants need to sign up on the borough website. The borough also hosts a springtime giveaway in which residents can pick up plants to kick-start their gardens.

Fluet says the sign-up system enables the borough to steer residents away from sidewalks set for construction work. At the end of the season, it informs participants on how to protect their gardens in the winter.

There are still challenges, however. Leblanc said she has struggled to defend her gardens against encroaching snowplows and inconsiderate dog owners. This year, she fortified all three of her tree square plots with 10-centimetre-high plywood ramparts.

Despite those irritants, she plans to sign up for the program again next year.

"I plan on participating every year," she said, recognizing a sense of stewardship of the public space on her street.

"I hope I can keep them for a long time."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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