Stratford Festival Theatre

What Ontario tourist attraction receives fifteen hundred visitors twice a day? Would you believe the place is a garden? That’s quite a number and you may be wondering why you haven’t heard of it when it’s right on our doorstep.  The secret is, those visitors may not be aware they’re visiting one of the finest public gardens in Southern Ontario.

Located at 99 Downie Street, Stratford, Ontario, this also happens to be the address of the Stratford Festival Theatre, and the primary intention for most of those visitors is to attend a performance at the theatre. Still, I’m guessing there have been more than a few plant lovers who’ve happened by and asked the purpose of the impressive building beside the gardens, but then, that’s a plant lover for you.

For many theatre goers, the gardens are a serendipitous discovery. In the words of head gardener Anita Jacobson, “It sets it apart from other theatres. Many tell us they value the gardens as much as the theatre.”

There are four unique sections, each one a delight. The largest is The Arthur Meighan Gardens, created in 1996 as a gift from the family of Canada’s ninth Prime Minister, first elected in 1920. It lines the approach to the front entrance of the theatre. I began my exploration at the foot of the garden, at a magnificent, ninety-year-old gingko tree, beneath which is an understory of native plants, abuzz with pollinators. From there I meandered along the many crisscrossing paths up the gentle slope to the theatre. It took a while as there are so many exceptional plants, all in top condition, well established with room to reach their full potential. There are yellow hollyhocks, striking red crocosmia, and fragrant phlox in pastel shades. Ornamental grasses bring balance to the rich array of colours.

The Meighan garden is a botanist’s delight. Filled mainly with perennials, each one is clearly labelled with the botanical name followed by its common name. This is essential when visitors are inclined to ask the eternal question, “Quid est nomen illius planta” (What’s the name of that plant?). Horticulture students from Fanshawe College visit each September to practice their plant recognition skills, and there are enough species to keep them busy.

Ask Anita and she always has the answer. She began what would become her career while still a toddler, helping her father in his London, Ontario based landscaping business. She never strayed far from the plant world, and with a degree in zoology she added an essential understanding of the four or more legged pests that inevitably appear in a garden. Even two legged pests have been known to appear, snipping a cutting or two. 

Caring for a public garden requires an understanding of both weather and climate change.  Being more
conscious of maintaining a water-wise garden, Anita now avoids the use of overly thirsty plants. She monitors them closely, only watering when necessary. “I also try to include plants that don’t need so much nursing along,” she says. That includes the need for pest control. She plants fewer Asiatic lilies now because of the voracious red lily beetle that devastates the plants.

With a depth of almost 60 centimetres (two feet) of healthy soil in the Meaghen Garden there’s little need for fertilizer, and judging from the health of the plants, they do fine without it.

The main goal of Anita’s team — two assistants and three summer help from May to August — is to ensure the garden always looks beautiful — all the time. Snipping spent blooms, known as deadheading, is a continual process. Tricks like the Chelsea chop are used to encourage plants like garden phlox to produce more blooms. It’s named for the British custom of lightly shearing receptive plants in early June, after the conclusion of the Famous Chelsea Flower Show.

Whereas a display at such a garden show is created to last only a few days using impractical plant combinations, it’s a much greater challenge to ensure a permanent garden always looks its best, especially as few perennials bloom all season long. The Meighan Garden is a fine example of clever succession planting, where a range of plants are selected to bloom on time, in sequence, before leaving the stage. For Anita, this is like seeing a new performance weekly. “I tell people who remark, come back next week as there’ll always be something different.”

Does she a favourite plant? “Yes,” she tells me, I always have favourites, but they’re different favourites every month, although I really like the perennial hibiscus and I love the Japanese anemones. They’re so fresh at the end of summer.” After an hour in the garden, I have a list of new favourites.The Meighan garden is a place to enjoy, to learn, to see the potential of plants that can easily be grown successfully in one’s own garden.

Venture a short way along the building forecourt, past the huge planters, each containing Lantanas, a popular garden annual impressively trained into small trees, and you’ll find the Ann Casson rose garden. To pass by on a balmy, midsummer evening is to be enchanted by the fragrance.

There is a perception that roses can be difficult to grow successfully as older varieties are often more susceptible to disease. You wouldn’t think so of the ones in Anita’s rose garden. She moved the original plot out of the shade of ever larger trees and into a more favourable place in full sun where the roses excel. With her team’s daily attention, they perform to perfection.

The rose bed is filled with about forty varieties in a rainbow of colours. Included are familiar hybrid tea and floribundas, newer David Austens, and Canadian bred Explorer Roses.

“People do have a fond spot for roses, says Anita. “They like to see a hybrid tea in different colours because everyone has their favourites. Some of mine are Double Delight, Pretty Lady, Munstead Wood, and De Montarville.”

Only steps away is The Elizabethan Garden. Here, perhaps during intermission, a theatre goer can slip right into a floral representation of the age of Shakespeare, and ponder, as he may have, at the sight of many of the flowers that would have been familiar to him.

This is an immaculately maintained, parterre garden, a style first introduced in France during the life of Shakespeare. Elegantly designed with crazy paving, a method that originated in ancient Rome, the sections of parterre are enclosed by neatly trimmed boxwood hedges. At one corner stands a gleaming steel statue of the bard, book in hand. On the fountain at the centre, words from his play Cymbeline are inscribed: “These flow’rs are like the pleasures of the world”.

Within the symmetrical parterre are four named gardens containing plants that were familiar, and in use in the sixteenth century. There’s the Witch’s Garden with plants like Vervain, considered in ancient times to be a herb with great medicinal powers. In the romantic garden are flowers that were used to make garlands, nosegays, and posies. These would perhaps include clary sage, used for love potions, dreams, and divinations; and of course, in the Kitchen Garden are edible plants and herbs. It’s best described as an Elizabethan drugstore.

The fourth section is Shakespeare’s garden, where plants are paired plants with passages mentioned in Shakespeare's works. “The challenge was to find plants from 500 years ago that would display well alongside modern day species,” Says Anita. She found them: cowslip, peony, yellow flag, wild thyme, hyssop, and eryngium. Both the old names and the botanical names are used to identify them. There’s even Agrostemma githago, known before botanists renamed it as corn-cockle a common weed of wheat fields. Thanks to modern farming methods, it’s almost extinct in the land of Shakespeare. In this garden, it’s allowed to produce a mass of magenta flowers.

Given the hundreds of references to plants mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays and sonnets, had he failed as a playwright he might have been a gardener. Given the mystery surrounding his identity, maybe he was.

Beyond the Elizabethan Garden, in an expanse of lawn, is a carpet bed, a style that was all the rage in the Victorian era and is still popular in public gardens. A carpet bed is designed using low growing plants to present a smooth surface patterned as the name suggests. This one provides a contemporary connection with the theatre that particularly attracts the interest of theatre goers who may have only a passing interest in plants and gardens.

Anita tells me many carpet beds were established in the early days of the theatre by Dennis Washburn, of England. “All were taken out after renovation, but the public missed them and demanded they be put back in.” A round one seventeen feet in diameter was added at the time by Harry Jongerden, the head gardener who preceded Anita, and is now executive Director at the Toronto Botanical Garden. “Harry had the idea to take pictures or images associated with the plays and illustrate them in the garden.”

Anita continues the tradition, but for easier access for maintenance, she switched to a long, narrow bed, two metres wide and fifteen metres long. The carpet bed is planted in sections, separated by taller plants. In each of the sections, plants form a symbol representing six of the plays being performed during the season. The fun is in trying to guess which of six plays are represented.

Among them for the 2018 season were a map of Italy for Napoli Milionaria, a bottle and glass to
represent the bourbon consumed in a Long Day’s Journey into Night, and perhaps the easiest to discern, a pair of legs in high heels that could only be The Rocky Horror Picture Show. One of the shows for the 2019 season is Little Shop of Horrors. Now that could pose a challenge for Anita. Will we see the appearance of an Audrey II?

The carpet bed requires more than 2000 plants, mostly different coloured varieties of alternanthera with bands of ageratum and borders of alyssum. Planting it in spring is a tedious process, but it doesn’t end there. Throughout the season, every two weeks, the plants are hand trimmed by Anita to maintain the precision of the images. Sadly, when the first frost arrives in fall, the plants die and the images fade, as do those in the other gardens at Stratford Festival Theatre.

For Anita, the work doesn’t end. She’s as busy as ever, planting and replanting, keeping the gardens tidy until winter snow hides them. She reviews what worked and what didn’t in her continuing quest to get everything perfect, despite the vagaries of plants and weather. “It worries me when things don’t look the way I want them to. It motivates me to get it right.”

Ask any one of those fifteen hundred visitors if she did and I’m sure the answer would be, “She sure has.”

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