Gardening Guru dropped in to
East Gwillimbury for a book signing event
By Blair Matthews
It’s 6:01 am on Friday, February 26, 2016. Breakfast Television weather personality Frank Ferragine has been up for hours already. On this particular morning it’s -2c and Frank is gearing up to do his weather reports live on location at Kortright Centre for Conservation. More specifically, he’s going to tap a maple tree and talk about the virtues of pure maple syrup in preparation of the upcoming maple syrup season.
It sounds like a dream job (except for the 6 am part).
Unless you’re an avid CityTV viewer, you probably know Frank better as Frankie Flowers, a name and a personality that has become synonymous with gardening across Canada. His resumé includes: trusted gardening expert and speaker, weather specialist for CityTV’s Breakfast Television, newspaper/magazine columnist, and 3-time best-selling book author. Frank loves to share his passion for the outdoors and it shows in every facet of his work.
From Francis Ferragine to Frankie Flowers
Though best recognized by his radio and television nickname ‘Frankie Flowers’, he was born Francis Ferragine. His grandfather was also named Francis, which inevitably caused problems at the small town bank in Bradford when the elder Francis’ deposits were ending up in the young Francis’ account.
The bank changed his account name to Frankie, and the moniker stuck.
As for the ‘Flowers’ portion, his family has owned Bradford Green Houses since 1961.
“Being a kid, everyone would call me ‘rapini’, ‘linguine’, all these things that rhymed with Ferragine. And then all of a sudden they just started calling me Flowers when I was playing minor sports. It was more of a joke, but when people said ‘Frankie Flowers’ they seemed to smile and so I stuck with it.”
Gardening, he says, was engrained in him from the very beginning. “I always joke that I’m a product of child labour. My March Breaks, my summers, my Christmas holidays were spent in the greenhouse.” His life path took a different route when he pursued a career in law at York University. He graduated with a B.A. and was accepted into law school but something about it just didn’t seem to fit.
He went to work for his family’s new store in Barrie while he weighed his career options. He’d been giving gardening talks to clubs and societies since he was 17 and considering his vast horticultural knowledge, shifting his focus was a seamless transition.
Frank began his television career in 1995 working for A-Channel Toronto/Barrie (formerly The New VR) giving gardening tips to viewers. He hosted and produced Diggin’ It on CH, and in 2005 he became a full-time weather and gardening expert on CityTV’s Breakfast Television in Toronto.
And whether he is on the show giving planting tips, growing tricks, learning to sew or competing in a camping food challenge, he makes every segment fun and educational.
After a while, you’d think the gardening topics and material Frank covers would get repetitive – not so, he says.
“Today on Breakfast Television we talked about Jamaican vegetable gardens. I was just on a trip to Jamaica and I took the time to talk to people about how they grow things. Travel is sometimes inspiring. It seems right now there’s so much interest in growing. Sometimes with technology people want to get away from it. Right now, people are into chicken coops, bee-keeping, vegetable gardening, edible flowers and medicinal plants. It’s people who give me fresh ideas.”
Travelling around Ontario meeting fellow gardening enthusiasts you might assume Frank would have a recurring question that comes up – maybe something about lawns or grubs or water conservation.
Matter-of-factly, his most asked question is: “What time do you get up in the morning?”
This clearly shows how popular his segments on Breakfast Television have become. (The answer is 3 am.)
“We’re part of so many people’s morning routine. They get up and we’re there – we’re kind of like their coffee in the morning.”
Frank has been voted Toronto’s favourite weather personality 8 years in a row by Toronto Sun readers – an achievement that still surprises him. “The weather... sometimes people love it and sometimes they don’t. It’s kind of humbling because I’m just having fun. It speaks for the success of not just me, but the success of Breakfast Television and the team that we have there. I think people feel like they’re at the same table with us.”
It’s not as scary as you think...
As big a hobby as gardening has become over the years, Frank says many people are still scared to give it a try. “A lot of people think gardening is knowledge and work. It’s kind of like outdoor decorating. They’ll be OK with decorating their house and experimenting but a lot of people still fear killing their own plants or making mistakes in their garden. Some people are really intimidated by it.”
Gardening is about dealing with living things. Everyone, including him, has killed plants at one time or another. “I kill plants probably every year,” he laughs. “I just want people to try it. You get a couple successes and you find your garden groove and you’ll be addicted.”
His two boys – age 7 and 9 – have developed a love of growing and eating things from the garden. Introducing kids to gardening is something parents can do at a very early age. “Kids love to get dirty. You just have to be extremely patient because an activity in the garden that would normally take you 20 minutes takes 40 minutes with kids,” he says. “If you get excited about growing things, they just want to learn; they’re sponges. They like to be outside, they like to get dirty. You have to give them results fairly quickly, so it’s great to grow something like beans – you put a bean seed in the ground and in a few short days it’s germinating and coming up.”
2016 Motto: Growing to Give
In late 2015, tragedy struck Frank’s family when one family member took his own life. He was a friend, a mentor, and a caring loving guy, Frank says. This year, Frank is honouring him and others affected by mental illness and depression by spreading the word about the mental health benefits of gardening.
“In 2016 what I’m trying to do is to teach people and motivate people to grow at least one thing they can eat. That interaction with plants will benefit them physically and mentally.”
According to a CNN report, a recent study in the Netherlands suggests that gardening can fight stress even better than other relaxing leisure activities.
After completing a stressful task, two groups of people were instructed to either read indoors or garden for 30 minutes. Afterward, the group that gardened reported being in a better mood than the reading group, and they also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
In a study conducted in Norway, people who had been diagnosed with depression, persistent low mood, or ‘bipolar II disorder’ spent six hours a week growing flowers and vegetables. After three months, half of the participants had experienced a measurable improvement in their depression symptoms, CNN reported.
Closer to home, one of Frank’s personal goals this year is to build a rooftop farm on Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto. He says this farm, called Elevated Eats, will be a place to educate people of all ages on growing their own food. The working plan is to donate all the food grown from the farm to local food banks.
If the weather co-operates – and let’s face it, with Frank at the helm, it should – the rooftop farm will kick off May 15 this year. “We should be harvesting about a month after that, a little bit at a time. We hope that this won’t just be a one-time event.”
Frank’s new book Food to Grow (due out March 8)brings everything full circle. “I come from the Holland Marsh, that’s where my dad came to Canada and they started off here, and I just felt it’s the kind of book that people needed. This winter has been a perfect example of where food prices have gone,” he says. “Produce prices are crazy and urban farming – people are really getting into it. It ties in with our mission and it’s something everyone can do.”
All the photography in Food to Grow, he says, was done in the surrounding Gwillimbury area including portions of East Gwillimbury.
On Thursday, March 31, Frank is coming to East Gwillimbury for an author event at the Civic Centre in Sharon. He’ll be doing about a 40 minute talk on growing your own food and some ways you can do it in either a large space or a small space. He’ll also answer audience questions, give gardening advice, and sign copies of his new book.
Doing the author circuit, Frank is reminded that, much like doing live television, sometimes you just never know what people will say or the questions they’ll ask. “I’ll give an instance on how to get rid of raccoons and a guy in Northern Ontario will say ‘you just shoot them’. People will get up and talk about their divorce while I’m talking about gardening. I’ve done weather on live TV and somebody has mooned me – dropped their their pants behind me,” he recalls with a laugh.
“It’s been pretty fun. The lesson I’ve learned out of all of this is that people come in many different shapes and sizes, but everyone’s heart is in the right place.”
“And,” he says with a deliberate pause, “there’s nothing that can shock me now.”