So what if the growing season is short? Canadian gardens are second to none. You should see for yourself.

April 26 2004


So what if the growing season is short? Canadian gardens are second to none. You should see for yourself.

April 26 2004




So what if the growing season is short? Canadian gardens are second to none. You should see for yourself.

TOUR OPERATORS—«ever ones to overlook a growing market—offer packages with garden enthusiasts in mind. Want to see classic, herbaceous borders? A trip to southern England—including a mustsee stop at Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle Garden—is the ticket. After something more exotic? Check out, for instance, Otari-Wilton’s Bush on the outskirts ofWellington which is dedicated solely to the conservation of New Zealand’s native plant life. But Canadians seeking inspiration for their own haven on Earth—whether the back forty or a container-filled balcony—really don’t have to leave the country. Canada is abloom with great gardens, and, unlike ones overseas, they demonstrate exactly which plants stand a chance of not just surviving but thriving in our challenging climate. And while the

thermometer may guide plant selection, it has no bearing on garden style. The lush Butchart Gardens in Victoria, the 18th-century-style kitchen garden of the Château Ramezay in Old Montreal, and the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., are worlds apart not only geographically, but in terms of their scale, structure and aesthetic. Your local municipal gardens may also have much to offer. Already this year, 268 cities, towns and villages have registered to participate in national and provincial competitions sponsored by Communities in Bloom, a not-forprofit organization dedicated to urban beautification. (When the program was launched in 1995, just 29 municipalities got involved.) Maclean’s has picked five great public-access gardens that illustrate a great Canadian trait, diversity.


Open: Daily. Closed Mondays, November to April. Highlights: First full-scale classical garden built outside China. Incorporates water, rock and Ming dynasty architecture, assembled using centuriesold techniques.

VANCOUVER’S Chinatown is an exotic, chaotic assault on the senses. Rivers of pedestrians flow by fragrant storefront displays of tea, fruit and fish, and swirl past eddies of gossiping shoppers. Trucks idle. Horns blare. The clatter of mah-jong tiles falls from the upper windows of venerable social clubs. Chinatown is anything but restful, with one notable exception. Tucked behind the Chinese Cultural Centre at the corner of Keefer and Carrall streets, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is a calming oasis. There, behind spare white walls, is a faithful reproduction of the private gardens of Suzhou, China, which reached their zenith as an art form during the Ming dynasty of 1368 to 1644. “People come through the doors,” says Yvonne Chui, executive-director of the gardens, “and they feel as if they’ve been transported to another place and another time.”

Inside, the sounds of the city fall away. If you tilt your head just so, even the looming downtown skyline vanishes and an idealized natural world opens before you. The elements of the garden—water, rock, plants and architecture—are arranged according to the Taoist belief of yin and yang: that harmony is created in a balance of opposites. Thus, dark is located with light, hard with soft. Smooth shafts of bamboo grow by rough rock stalagmites from Chinese caves. The sense of serenity is obvious, but the layers of symbolism and meaning are best understood by taking one of the frequent guided tours.

The garden reveals itself slowly, behind walls and courtyards and bends in its covered walkways. Light and hints of views to come spill through elaborate grills, appropriately called “leak” windows. “There are no straight lines within the garden,” says Chui. “It maximizes space and it slows you down.” Although it covers barely 14 per cent of a hectare, it seems far larger.

Turtles and decorative koi glide through pond water the colour of milky green jade. Chui climbs to one of her favourite sites, a “mountain” built of imported limestone, worn by water into fantastically convoluted art. Such miniaturized mountains, topped with a pavilion or “ting,” were included in gardens to lure the immortals to Earth to impart their wisdom, she says.

The garden is spare by western standards. The focus may rest on a single plant and its relationship to its environment and to the seasons. It’s early spring and the garden is ablaze with colour: the magenta of a lily of the valley bush; the salmon-pink blossoms of a camellia; the forming buds of a tree peony that will explode into pink, jasminescented flowers as big as two open hands. Each season offers its own rewards. The flowers of summer, the blazing leaves of autumn. In winter, there’s the evergreen of pine and bamboo, the delightful winterflowering plum, the skeletal display of rock and branch.

Its greatest gift in any season is the sense that the garden has carried you to a different, gentler, place. “I don’t know what it is or how it works,” says Chui, “but people come out of here energized.”

Seeds for thought:

■ Give your plants space and balance

■ The whole garden doesn’t need to be flowering at the same time. Plants with a succession of blooming periods provide ongoing interest.

m If the underlying structure is attractive, a garden will still be appealing in winter.



Location: Morden, Man., 115 km southwest of Winnipeg

Open: Monday to Friday Highlights: The arboretum with its wide selection of shrubs and trues, including coldtolerant fruit plants, most notably apple trees. The landscaped grounds around the offices and laboratories.

THE AGRICULTURE and Agri-Food Canada Morden Research Station is a local treasure where families go to picnic or have their wedding photos taken. But Morden has arguably had an impact on all Canadians. As the full name implies, it is first and foremost a research centre, one of 19 such federal facilities across Canada. Collectively, they’ve developed, over decades of trial and error, thousands of varieties of plants hardy enough to thrive in the Canadian climate. Since opening in 1915, Morden itself has introduced over 160 plant types. Many of those were—and are—for commercial crops, like flax, beans and peas. The home gardener has most likely heard of the centre in connection with other sorts of plants, with such names as Morden Belle and Morden Snowbeauty. They’re roses—with attitude.

Wild roses grow in the Northern Hemisphere all around the globe and were first cultivated in Asia 5,000 years ago. Even so, gardeners in more temperate regions traditionally had a wider—and showier—selection. But with its so-called Parkland series, first introduced in 1962, Morden has developed beautiful roses capable of surviving winter temperatures as low as -35°C with a minimum of snow cover, and then blooming all summer. They’re a northern gardener’s dream, popular not only in Canada, but the northern U.S. and Scandinavia as well.

The Canadian government, in fact, has been in the business of breeding roses since 1886. Morden got into the act in the 1930s and has introduced new roses every decade since (it can take many years to hybridize a plant suitable for the nursery trade). Canada’s other major rose-breeding program, the Explorer series that had been developed first at Ottawa and then at Saint-Jean-surRichelieu, Que., has been phased out. Still, that’s not the end of them. Nurseries will continue to carry those already in the marketplace as long as they remain popular with the rose-buying public. And some of the Explorer stock was saved and incorporated into a new breeding program underway as a joint venture with the private sector. In keeping with changing tastes, this new series, which will be named for Canadian artists, is focusing more than its predecessors on roses with flowers in the white, yellow and orange colour ranges. None of these are likely to be commercially available for at least the next five years. But tours of the Morden facility take visitors past the field trials—a great opportunity for a sneak peek.

Seed for thought: HI You don’t have to give up anything in the beauty department for plants that are coldhardy. BARBARA WICKENS


Location: St.John’s

Open: May 1 to Nov. 30, seven days a week Highlights: The rock gardens, including a limestone barrens garden, and the peat and woodlands bed; rare native plants, many not seen outside Newfoundland.

THIS IS A WORKING garden, a research facility and a botanical garden all rolled into one. In operation since 1977, the gardens include five nature trails through a 45-ha nature reserve, displaying native plants in a variety of natural settings, including bogs, ponds, barrens and boreal forest. The gardens also showcase different cultivated plants that grow well in the local climate. “The stereotypic idea that you can’t grow anything in Newfoundland is blown right out of the water,” says Wilf Nicholls, who runs the gardens. “People are overwhelmed by what you can grow here.”

The trail system is another eye-opener. Nicholls says many out-of-province visitors have seen nothing like Newfoundland’s bog, fen and barren lands, with pitcher plants, rare orchids, and “plants found nowhere else.” Then there are the maintained gardens, which are broken up into small “rooms,” including a heritage garden with plants and plant divisions donated by Newfoundland families who can trace them back 200 years and more, a composting demonstration garden and a medicinal plants garden. “You feel like you’ve gone to lots of different places in this garden,” Nicholls says, “but you’ve moved only steps.”

Recent research projects at the facility include finding and developing native species that will survive in sites like highway verges and former mines, and operating a conservation site to try to regenerate endangered and threatened Newfoundland plants, including the Long’s braya and Fernald’s braya, two rare plants in the mustard family found only on the limestone barrens of the province’s west coast.

The botanical garden even celebrates one of Newfoundland’s commercial crops—it sponsors an annual Potato Festival each fall in honour of the array of potato-wart-resistant spuds developed in the province. “We like to promote potatoes, taste potatoes—they all have different flavours—and we want people to have fun with potatoes.”

Seed for thought: ■ Don’t be afraid to try new things, especially rarer plants. RUSSELL WANGERSKY


Location: Hamilton Open: Daily

Highlights: The Rock Garden, carved in an abandoned gravel pit; Heritage Garden, featuring plants typically grown in Ontario gardens between 1880 and 1920; Cootes Paradise, where a section of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, runs through the RBG.

FOR A MONTH starting in mid-May, the Lilac Dell will be awash in delicate pinks and whites, deep rich purples and blues and every shade of, well, lilac in Mother Nature’s palette. But it’s not just a feast for the eyes; the sweet scent of the flowers is intoxicating— fragrant proof that spring has well and truly arrived. The RBG has scheduled its annual lilac festival this year for May 23,24 and 30. But anyone willing to forgo the children’s activities, concerts and guided tours can visit when it best suits—or when the plants are at their best (check With over 800 cultivars of lilacs—the RBG bills it the largest lilac collection in the world—the Dell can provide a rewarding day’s ramble.

The RBG traces its origins back to the 1920s, when Hamilton decided to beautify the city’s northwest and began acquiring land. Work began in 1929 in a former gravel pit which is now a rock garden where 100,000 spring tulips are replaced by a kaleidoscope of summer annuals. The garden also has several massive wisteria that bloom profusely—the trailing panicles look for all the world like a mauve waterfall.

The Royal Botanical Gardens—King George V proclaimed the royal charter in 1941—acquired additional lands over the decades. Today, at 1,100 ha, the RBG is not only the largest botanical garden in Canada, but one of the largest in the world. And like most modern botanical gardens, its objectives are not only aesthetic and recreational but scientific and educational as well. It can be difficult to tease them apart. After all, who benefits most from the Ontario tree and shrub collection? Schoolchildren who have a rare opportunity to see examples of many of the 90 species native to the province? Researchers studying the trees’ genetic material? Or perhaps hikers admiring autumn colours as they take advantage of the 30 km of interpretive trails weaving around Cootes Paradise?

For plant aficionados or casual visitors alike, the sheer exuberance of the place is often all that matters. It’s best just to put on comfortable shoes, clear the mind and take time to smell the roses—perhaps not all 2,500 bushes in the Centennial Rose Garden. Still, that number is dwarfed by the iris count: some 250,00 are planted throughout the grounds. The RBG can be excused for describing itself as “Paradise Found.”

Seeds for thought:

m A lot of one kind of plant makes a more dramatic display than one of a lot of different plants. ■ Scent can contribute as much to the enjoyment of a garden as how plants look. B.W.


Location: Grand Métis, Que., about 350 km east of Quebec City Open: Daily, June 1 to mid-October Highlights: A national historic site. Nine settings, including the Primula Glade and the Long Walk (at 90 m the only straight line in the entire garden), feature some 3,000 species of native and imported plants.

ALSO KNOWN as the Reford Gardens in honour of creator Elsie Reford, this is one of the most extravagant and exquisite great gardens in Canada. Its very existence confirms my suspicion: the potted petunia I’ll buy at the supermarket for my balcony this summer should come with a caution not unlike those on cigarette packs: “Warning! Gardening can be addictive, and lead to extreme gardening-itis. Consult a specialist at the earliest symptoms.”

Take Reford as an example: in 1918, her uncle, Lord Mount Stephen, who had retired as president of the Canadian Pacific Railway and moved to England, gave her his summer salmon-fishing camp on the Gaspé Peninsula. She turned the lodge on the 400-ha property into a 37-room, twostorey summer house. Outdoors, despite the region’s unpredictable—and often unspeakable-weather, she set about improving on God’s work: clearing the northern forest and shrubs to make way for plants unseen before in these climes, terracing a hill here, creating a mound there and changing the topsoil everywhere. She imported exotic plants from around the world on Cunnard, as her husband, Robert Reford, was its Canadian representative. Over a 30-year period she created a new world of ephemeral, ever-changing, perennial splendour.

People who know gardening come from as far away as Europe and Asia to admire her legacy. Some very rare and fragile plants— Hamalayan blue poppies, giant lilies, rhododendrons—still grow almost 40 years after her death. The uninitiated come in droves too, perhaps unaware of the horticultural prowess represented, but mesmerized by the exuberant harmony of it all. Elsie Reford, sensitive to beauty and familiar with its secret workings, had the vision, and heart, to create a huge, living, work of art.

Seeds for thought: ■ A fabulous garden can sprout even in a region with long winters and short summers. ■ Just dig in; the best way to learn about gardening is by doing it. H Don’t worry about accomplishing everything at once—Reford’s gardens evolved over three decades. BENOIT AUBIN