April 5, 2018
Tony DiGiovanni CHT
LO Executive Director

Paul Olsen, founder of Brookdale Treeland Nurseries in Schomberg, Ont., passed away suddenly on March 3. Paul was a truly special pioneer and lifelong contributor to the landscape/nursery profession. He was a man of integrity and honesty. He was passionate about the industry and cared deeply about the people working in it. He was a mentor to many, including me. His energy and actions have positively enhanced the entire horticultural profession across Canada and beyond.

I first met Paul in 1989 when I became Executive Director of Landscape Ontario. There was a recession at the time and Paul, along with a number of visionaries, started an organization called the Garden Council of Canada. Its mission was to stimulate demand by promoting the joys and benefits of gardening to the public. That experience led to another project where through his leadership, energy and collaborative nature, he convinced a number of competing growers to create an “Ontario Grown” brand to collectively market the benefits of using home grown plant material. Paul was never content with being passive. He was proactive. He worked to change things for the benefit of the entire profession.

Paul served on various committees and task forces of the association and in 1995 he was voted on to the Provincial Board of Directors as “Member at Large.” Not long afterwards, he was voted in as president. Very few individuals in the history of Landscape Ontario have gone from board member to president in such a short time. His energy, wisdom, and natural leadership ability were instantly recognized.

He was an amazing president to work with. He was always very supportive of staff. He was kind, engaged and cared deeply. He was easy to trust. Everyone wanted to work with him and for him. He was visionary and aspirational, but also conservative and practical. During his presidency in 1996-1997 the association experienced excellent membership and financial growth. We started the Georgian Lakelands Chapter during his tenure.
Paul also insisted the mortgage be paid down on the LO property in Milton so the association would be in a better position to serve the membership in the future.

When an LO president completes their term they traditionally receive a ceremonial gavel and a president’s ring. Paul received this with grace, but he also did something different. He gifted the association with a large granite sign in celebration of our 25th anniversary. It still adorns the entrance of our home office and will always be a reminder of his legacy. It’s Paul’s rock.

The end of his presidency was not the end of Paul’s service to the profession. He joined our Building Committee and the Steering Committee of Canada Blooms. He never said no to service. He also made very sizable donations of plant material to the home office and to Canada Blooms.

Paul was instrumental in the founding of Canada Blooms and he supported the show with his wisdom, business acumen, relationship-building talent and with hundreds of plants. I still remember Paul with his sons Peter and Jeff unloading trucks late at night.

In 2001, Landscape Ontario asked Paul to be our representative on the Canadian Nursery and Landscape Association. Nationally, he was quickly recognized for his natural leadership abilities and was again fast tracked to become CNLA president, serving from 2005 to 2007. As president, Paul focused on the alignment of vision and goals between the provincial and national associations. He insisted on collaboration instead of competition. At the time CNLA was struggling financially and Paul did the impossible. He convinced the provinces it was their duty to fund the national association to a level where it would be free to focus on integrated work that would benefit everyone.

Here is an excerpt from an email he wrote to all the Provincial Executive Directors: “I trust that everyone will keep this “top of mind” no matter what the issue. Everything we do must have a win/win side to it. It is critical that the executive directors continue their efforts to mesh and harmonize agendas creating efficiencies where ever and whenever possible.

“A legacy that we could leave would be a restructured CNLA that is truly the hub of the wheel being what it was originally intended to be, to wit: Advancing our industry nationally and internationally.”

In 2007, Paul received the highest honour Landscape Ontario bestows, becoming an “Honourary Life Member.” I still remember the very touching ceremony where his son Jeff made the presentation.

Also in 2007 Paul was asked to lead a delegation to China. Paul was the natural choice. He always represented the entire profession very well.

Paul was also asked to be our representative on the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre. He worked his collaborative magic with that organization as well. It grew from a few scientists and support staff to an extremely effective organization of over 50 scientists and many more support staff. Vineland benefited from his wisdom, energy, business acumen and service oriented nature.

It is quite remarkable that Paul grew his own business into one of the largest and most well-respected nurseries in Canada and still had time to help grow many other organizations as a volunteer.

Paul continued to serve the association and the profession until his passing. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy of service will live on in the people he has inspired. On the LO website there is an article that talks a little more about his life. I encourage you to read it.

As much as he contributed to the advancement of the landscape/nursery industry and as big as his legacy as an industry pioneer, visionary and champion is, I will always remember Paul for his genuine care, his wonderful support, his wisdom, his time and his friendship. These are the intangible attributes that inspire growth and positive change. Paul was a mentor to many people. Many of the comments about Paul on social media feeds are very similar. Words such as wisdom, mentorship, inspirational, friendship and care, are a common theme. He influenced and inspired many of us because of his character. He will be missed, but he will live on in our memories and our actions every time we care, mentor or serve others.

Tony DiGiovanni may be reached at tony@landscapeontario.com.