Longwood Gardens

Well it wasn’t an act of desperation, but driving ten hours to see living plants might appear that way. It all began with a suggestion by Rodger Tschanz, who many know as the fellow who runs the plant trials at the University of Guelph. “How about a road trip to see the Philadelphia Flower Show,” he said. “Why not,” was my reply, so off we went last week.

Was the show worth a ten hour drive? Absolutely, but mainly because Rodger had a side trip in mind that ensured the journey was memorable. As for the show, it is the one that inspired the original organizers of Canada Blooms. The concept is much the same, but the Philadelphia show is larger with a wider range of plant material that is easily shipped in from the south. We trekked through the show Monday evening and Tuesday morning, and certainly enjoyed it, but then we headed to Longwood Gardens, about a forty minute drive west of Philadelphia.

I’d heard much of the place, and heard it was impressive, but I wasn’t prepared for what I would see. Certainly, the 1,000 acres of gardens were snow covered as ours are, but the 20 indoor gardens covering 18,200 m² (4.5 acres) were open for visiting. These were the famous Longwood conservatories and they are truly magical. I’m not much of a lawn lover, but to see a lush green one in the middle of winter bordered by beds of clivia and bromeliads, is a sight to behold. This was the main conservatory, originally built to house an orangery. It’s the largest of the 20 areas under glass.

Eight indoor gardeners along with volunteers ensure absolute perfection of the floral displays that transform with the seasons. Birds sing and water softly burbles, while in the orchid house, 500 plants fill the air with fragrance. Orchids? We just happened to visit during Orchid Extravaganza (runs until March 30th) when nearly 5,000 orchids adorn columns and hang from baskets with a few thousand more as backups should a petal fall.

Meanwhile in the East Conservatory blue predominates with masses of hydrangeas and spires of Plectranthus thyrsoideus. In any other place, a Bird of Paradise would stand out, but here it is challenged by too many other stars. I particularly liked the Winter Red-Hot Poker plant, not our common orange variety of Kniphofia uvaria, but Veltheimia bracteata, an entirely different species in pink and white.

We covered most of the half mile of pathways and passages, passing through the Silver Garden, Acacia Passage, Cascade Garden, Palm House, and Mediterranean Garden, marvelling all the way. The following morning we returned, and whilst Rodger, who once spent a week here as a volunteer, met with colleagues to discuss tissue culture techniques, I had the good fortune to be turned loose in the  conservatories before they opened for the day. Alone except for the few gardeners, I was free to wander at will, putting miles on my camera. What a gift.

And who gave this gift? It’s all thanks to industrialist Pierre S. du Pont (1870–1954), heir to the family fortune of the DuPont company. He acquired the property in 1906 to save an existing arboretum, then went on to create the gardens and build the conservatories. Longwood is now operated as a private trust, and in addition to the gardens it offers educational opportunities through its graduate program and internships. It also hosts hundreds of arts and horticultural functions each year.

Now I’ve seen what Longwood offers indoors I must return some day to see the outdoor gardens. Sure, it was a long drive, but with the winter we’ve had it couldn’t have been a better time to visit — serendipity. Good idea, Rodger.

Monet's Giverny

It was a single red poppy in a field of wheat beside a busy parking lot that caught my attention. The solitary flower had a calming affect on me after having just spent too short a time whirling through Claude Monet’s garden. It’s a busy place, visited as it is each year by half a million art lovers and gardeners from around the world. 

Those are the two main reasons to visit — to see what inspired his art or the garden that Monet created — or both. In reality, it is hard to separate the two.  I suppose I approached it as a gardener, but as soon as I stepped into the garden, it became less about plants and more about the images before me. I felt I was strolling through a living gallery of Monet’s art.

The sight of the oh so familiar water lily pond, however, featured so often in his paintings, managed to evoke a little gardener envy. The strolling pathway meanders around it, bordered by weeping willows, Japanese maples, bamboo and irises, allowing for a constantly changing perspective of the famous lilies. I crossed over one of the most painted and photographed bridges in the world beneath a huge blanket of wisteria. When in bloom a week or two earlier, the fragrance would have been heavenly.

I skipped taking my own picture of the bridge, crowded as it was with pond viewers and left to enter the main garden. The two areas are separate, each a couple of acres in size divided by a busy road. Monet began developing the gardens after moving there in 1883, then ten years later bought the land across the road where he had the pond dug. He would only have had to dodge the occasional horse and cart, but distracted visitors can now cross safely by way of a tunnel.

The garden is described as a Clos Normand, enclosed by walls and planted much as an English cottage garden filled with annuals and perennials and roses. Oh the roses — huge and healthy, masses of them all in bloom growing over arbors and walls, competing with clematis, fighting for space on the ivy covered house and filling flower beds.

The beds are simple and not for the neatnik. They’re long and narrow and don’t meet any concept of current landscape design. They stretch down the gentle slope from the house, each one a slightly different palette from its neighbours, filled with endless clumps of plants chosen to contrast or complement in colour, texture, shape and size. It’s peak time for poppies, purple and mauve against a perfect shroud of Verbena bonariensis, just one example of Monet’s artistic skill. Monet sure knew his colours.

Due to the number of visitors the narrow inner walkways between the beds are cordoned off, which is wise. Fill them with people and it would look like a checkout line at a garden center, and it would increase maintenance work for the gardeners, all eight of them.

The head gardener is now British born James Priest who only started his job on June 1st, a couple of days after I visited the garden. He’s a 53-year-old Kew trained horticulturalist from Liverpool, but he has lived in France for 27 years. Priest has stated his intent is to ensure Monet’s concept is fully realized with a review of the original garden. 

After Monet died in 1926, the garden deteriorated and was eventually abandoned, the flower beds covered in turf and the pond soon filled with silt.  Restoration only began in the late 1970s by Gerald van der Kamp, curator of the property, with head gardener Gilbert Vahe. His retirement after 35 years tending the garden opened up an opportunity for James Priest to take over.

After only an hour or two there, I had to leave too, to return to my own garden where there are a couple of poppies waiting to bloom.

Homeward Bound

My tree peony had a huge bud on it at the beginning of June but I never saw it bloom. In fact, I missed a lot of things happening in my garden during the first couple of weeks of the month. I didn't see the first rose blossoms or the first water lily flower, things I look forward to with eager anticipation.

I didn't mind at all missing these garden highlights as I was away on a two week garden tour of Northern England. Not a typical organised garden tour, travelling on a luxury coach, staying at five star hotels and dining with Jamie Oliver. Mine was an unorganised tour, more often disorganised. I was mainly visiting family, but found time to do my own tour on foot and in a rental car.

Yorkshire moors, heather in bloom
I made numerous serendipitous discoveries of remarkable gardens simply by leaving my sister's house and wandering around the village. It's located in the Holme Valley, which extends upwards from an old industrial city onto moorland in the heart of the Peak District, Britain's first national park — hilly country where farmland is crisscrossed with dry stone walls. In the numerous villages, older houses are stacked on top of each other,  complete with front yards, some of reasonable size, though often barely large enough for a planter. But if there is room for one, it will be there. Not every front garden is worthy of a magazine feature, but the sheer number and variety of styles is remarkable.

While driving, I frequently turned a corner only to slam on the brakes, astonished at the sight of a garden perched in the strangest of places, while hearing cries of  "Not again Dad" from the back seat. The excitement of discovery was only surpassed by the thrill of driving on the wrong side of narrow, steep, twisty roads that were designed for horses and asses, not motor vehicles, and it's no surprise to find that many asses are now driving cars — often stopping suddenly to leap out for closer looks at front gardens. Stop signs are rare and when yield is occasionally suggested by a rusty sign or couple of dotted lines across the road, it's only a vague concept. When oncoming traffic approaches, it becomes  a matter of squeezing the car against a stone wall on the left while allowing side mirrors to air kiss as they pass.

York Gate
I also travelled beyond the valley to visit two gardens that are open to the public, both of which were worth the whole trip. I first visited York Gate near the city of Leeds. It is a masterpiece, considered by many as one of the best small gardens (one acre) in the world. Created by the Spencer family between 1951 and 1994 on a property that was formerly a farm, the garden is based on the "garden room" concept popularised by Lawrence Johnston's Hidcote. There are fourteen "rooms" with enticing names like Dell, Canal, Nut Walk, Sybil's Garden, Pinetum, Fern Border, and Old Orchard.

Each one is unique, meticulously designed, and yet travelling between them was seamless, even though every garden feature you can possibly imagine has been somehow included. I passed along pathways through a sequence of scenes, each culminating in yet another focal point, be it an eight foot high sundial, a grouping of bonsai, a labyrinth — even a compost heap. Everything, including the potting shed with its collection of vintage garden tools, was perfectly situated. At every turn, I discovered rare and unusual plants, including a favourite — a blue Himalayan poppy — made my day.

The garden wasn't at all crowded with visitors, but at an arch beside the greenhouse, I had to wait my turn to get a closer look at a crinodendron in full bloom. Each scarlet-red flower looks like a tiny, perfect lantern, and the shrub was covered with enough to light a whole street. Across the pathway on the gable of the eighteen century house a Pyrocantha was growing, so dense and perfectly espaliered, it resembled a green brick wall. Around the corner, I bumped into a ceanthus — blooms as blue as blue eyes and buzzing with bees. I have the perfect place for such a shrub in my garden, but alas, like many of the rare plants in this garden it will not survive our climate.

I spent most of an idyllic afternoon exploring, sipping tea in the tearoom and chatting with the volunteers who help out. On Sybil Spencer's death in 1994, York Gate passed into the care of Perennial, Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society, a charity that will continue to maintain the garden in accordance with Sybil Spencer’s wish that it will continue to attract visitors for both education and pleasure.

The second garden I visited was at Parcevall Hall, a gardener's heaven of thirty acres located on a remote hillside near the village of Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales. Like York Gate, it was originally a farm, the farmhouse turned into a country home in 1926 by Sir William Milner and is now run as a private retreat house.

Parcevall Hall
A few hours wasn't enough to explore everything the garden offered, but we tried, galloping up and down the terraces and through a wood with the magical name of Tarn Ghyll, darting between the Camelia Walk and the Chapel Garden. I can't begin to describe the beauty and tranquility of this place. The collection of plants is immense, including many rare ones that have never been marketed, particularly rhododendrons. No runty looking shrubs here. They were the size of large garden sheds covered in blooms in the most amazing colours from yellow through pinks and reds to purples.

From the formal gardens, we followed the meandering woodland pathways upward to emerge at the cliff walk gasping, not so much from the climb but at the reward, a stunning view across the surrounding countryside, of green hills far away, laced together with limestone walls, the deep valley of Trollers Gill below. Sir William chose wisely when he set his garden in an area of such natural beauty, but only by visiting during all four seasons could this paradise be fully appreciated.

I'm home now, pulling the weeds that have taken advantage, deadheading spent blossoms, and happy to see that there's still one unopened bud on my tree peony.

The Harrogate Flower Show

They came with their bags and boxes, wagons and wheelies, all prepared to haul home the perfect plant, piece of statuary or garden accessory. This was the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show, three days in September in the North of England where gardeners have the final opportunity to satiate their garden needs before the season ends. Whether it’s the latest pruning tool, antique planter or the rarest of shrubs, it’s all available — in spades (groan). There was even a plant and product crèche for the temporary deposit of heavy purchases rather than lugging them around the show.

Unlike the well-known city garden shows of summer — Chelsea and Hampton Court — with their elaborate, hugely expensive show gardens; this was brass tacks, no guff gardening. I was there to see it all on a perfect sunny day in the greenest of rolling countryside in Yorkshire. With a brass band playing and my favourite traditional food available, I was at home. Okay, I’m a tad biased having grown up there and I was lucky it wasn’t raining, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Besides the essential shopping aspect of the show, it is the place to view displays of: the longest carrots, beets the size of cabbages, cabbages the size of pumpkins, and every possible variety of perfect apples.

As for the flowers, I gaped at absolutely immaculate specimens of delightful dahlias, mini mums and monster mums, the finest of fuchsias, and don’t even ask about the roses. Glads and bonsai, geraniums and delphiniums, all were challenging for best in class, the result of months of intensive care by amateur gardeners in countless tiny backyards and allotments (community gardens).

Plants for sale were in abundance, and at the right time for planting in the garden. I saw a few that I would have liked to bring home, but alas, customs restrictions are still in place for the importing of plants. Instead I settled for a selfie with a new coreopsis, one that I’ll be on the lookout for over here.

Fascinating were the novel approaches to garden adornments — a life-size shire horse constructed with strips of branches shorn of bark — imagine that galloping across the rose garden. Increasingly popular are vintage stone troughs, originally hand hewn with hammer and chisel. My dad had a collection filled with alpine plants.

Once used to capture water or as troughs for animal feed on hill farms where stone was abundant, the old ones are rare and much sought after, but now they can be reproduced by mechanical means. Since the stone is the same, it’s hard to see any difference between those and the traditional ones. Galvanised planters appear popular too, just as they are around my place. One dealer appeared to have rounded up every possible metal artifact that could possibly hold soil, the original function of some hard to discern.

There is much tradition around gardening in Britain; though one that is fading is the use of peat in the garden. The government proposes to ban the use of peat based products by 2020 as harvesting it is considered environmentally unsustainable. The Royal Horticultural Society has already reduced the use of peat in its own gardens by 90%.

There are alternatives and I spotted a couple of peat free potting soils — one produced from composted wool and the other from composted bracken. The latter is produced in the Lake District and aptly named Lakeland Gold. Of note is they were both labelled as compost, the term used in Britain for potting soil, not to be confused with compost produced by a compost pile.

This short glimpse into to the heart of British gardening was delightful, but now it’s time to sort out my own garden. It doesn’t handle neglect well at all.

Butchart Gardens, BC, Canada

It’s bad enough it’s barely rained in half a year or more, then so hot this month that mulch has become a fire hazard. And where was I when my garden was frying last week? Not huddled over an AC register. No, I was relishing benign weather in a garden that is almost always blessed with sufficient moisture. Lush, towering plants so tall I couldn’t see over them — well, the delphiniums were tall, but even the day lilies were a challenge. I was in Butchart Gardens, perhaps the finest garden in Canada, and to be honest, one of the finest I’ve seen anywhere.

It’s been on my list for a while and since I was on the west coast, I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to visit a garden where everything seems to grow as it’s meant to, to its full potential. I’m convinced southern Ontario is one of the toughest places to be a gardener — too hot, too cold, too wet and too dry. We’re battle hardened gardeners here. What must it be like to stick a plant in the ground and then jump clear?

Robert Pim Butchart left Owen Sound in 1904 for the west coast where he began quarrying limestone for a cement plant. He didn’t have gardening on his mind, but after the limestone was exhausted, what do you do with a big hole in the ground? His wife, Jenny, knew. She saw the potential and slowly began creating a sunken garden. To do this, she had loads of soil hauled in by horse and cart to cover the quarry floor — I dare say all the horses contributed organic matter too.

The craggy walls of the quarry are now a hanging garden, festooned with plants, while below are beds of remarkable healthy annuals surrounded by an astonishing range of lush shrubs — weeping sequoia, willows, Pieris, and Ceanothus, the latter adorned with blue flowers. The quarry also has a large fountain shooting 21 meters high, and a lily pond reflecting Japanese maples and rhubarb-like Gunnera in the still water. It brought to mind the garden of Monet at Giverny — perhaps Jenny visited it.

The lushly planted sunken garden is only a part of the 22 hectares (55 acres) at Butchart. After the factory buildings were removed, leaving only the old kiln chimney, still visible today, it freed up more garden space allowing Jenny to exercise her passion. After seeing other gardens on their world travels, she came home inspired to add more to this amazing place. She added an Italian garden, a Mediterranean garden, a magnificent rose garden and a Japanese garden. It lies on a gently sloping hillside, explored by way of a serene, winding pathway that continues on stepping stones across a shallow pond, then over a traditional red bridge.

On the approach to the gardens, Jenny Butchart imported cherry trees from Japan to line the driveway to the place she had now christened Benvenuto, meaning welcome. And welcoming it was when she opened up her garden to the public. By the 1920’s, over fifty thousand visitors a year were showing up at the gate.

Today, it’s so popular a million visitors arrive each year. Fortunately, they didn’t all arrive the same day as I did, but by midday it was busy, perhaps because it was the first sunny day in quite a while; a sunny day with a light ocean breeze, not a scorching hot, smoggy, humid day. In fact, it was a perfect day to stroll among spectacular roses at peak blooming time and be overwhelmed by the fragrance.

Butchart Gardens is still a family operation and employs about fifty gardeners who are willing to answer questions about the masses of plants growing there. Too often I was puzzled when something that might only grow to knee height in my garden is at eye level — with bigger flowers. Can’t be, can it? Butchart has to be seen to be believed and it’s on my recommended list of essential gardens to visit.

I’m back in my own garden now, trying to breathe life into plants that aren’t aware of what they could be if they didn’t have to fight to survive the blistering days of July. Rain, please.

Reford Gardens -- Les Jardins de Métis

Drive thirteen hours just to look at a garden? Are you crazy? Some might think so, but not serious plant and garden lovers. Sooner or later they all add this one to their list of gardens to visit. It’s been on my own list for years but I never got around to it until last week when I suggested a road trip to fellow gardener, Mat. The garden in question is Reford Gardens, also known as Le Jardins de Métis, an English-style garden on the banks of the St. Lawrence near Grand-Métis, Quebec.

This historic garden, on the site of a family fishing camp, was created in the 1920s by Elsie Reford, and has been open to the public since 1962. The twenty acre garden, now under the care of her grandson, Alexander Reford, has become a magnet for gardeners intent on seeing this remarkable place. Many are attracted by the hope of seeing the famous blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia — and of course, a sublime garden filled with thousands of other notable plants.

This is why Mat and I were on the road at 4:30 a.m., with a 1200 kilometer drive ahead of us. After a stop to see the roses in the Montreal Botanical garden, we arrived in Metis-sur-Mer just in time to watch a beautiful sunset over the St. Lawrence. We hoped that it portended a sunny day for our garden tour. Alas, daybreak brought torrential rain and thunderstorms. There was little to do but wait in our hotel, Domaine Annie Sur Mer, for the weather to clear. It didn’t, but we hadn’t travelled all that way to sit around looking out on grey skies and grey water, so after reminding (or maybe convincing) ourselves that gardens always look best on cloudy, even rainy days, off we went.

Our somewhat damp enthusiasm was rewarded when, as we entered the garden, the rain eased then stopped completely — what a gift. There was no sunshine but we were beaming as we walked through a still dripping spruce forest along puddled pathways and over the wooden bridges that crisscross the small creek.

It was here that Elsie Reford created the heart of her garden. The pathways wind by the moss covered stone walls she built to stabilize the steep slopes. Azaleas of yellow and orange lit up the forest as masses of candelabra primula spilled down to the edge of the creek. Everywhere, forest-dwelling ferns gently softened the colourful plantings. Okay, I could go on about countless gorgeous plants — and of course the amazing blue poppies, but there’s so much more to this garden, including a lupine filled meadow.

A major attraction are the twenty-seven other gardens currently in place as part of the annual garden festival that makes Reford Gardens a unique horticultural tourist destination. These conceptual gardens, many of which are permanent, are created by designers from around the world. Artistic and sculptural, they’re designed to amaze, evoke, and puzzle over — ever seen trees other than in of Lord of the Rings that move across the forest floor? We did.

There was even a place for that blight of gardens everywhere, pink flamingoes. At Reford they were delightfully displayed in The Veil Garden as a flock advancing through ferns. I may have to consider finding room in my own garden for a few — or maybe in Mat’s garden.

I could attempt to describe our visit in endless detail, but I wouldn’t be able to capture the magic of Elsie Reford’s dream, enhanced impressively by talented designers. It’s the kind of place that simply has to be seen, but only if you’re up for a long road trip and willing to take a chance on having perfect garden viewing weather, as we did — the kind of rain we dearly need around here. Learn more here: Le Jardins de Métis See images

Hampton Court Flower Show

From the 4th to the 9th of July, 2023 is the Hampton Court Flower Show, and I had the opportunity to attend the show a few years ago. I’ve been to the rival Chelsea Flower Show a number of times with groups, but never Hampton, so I took the opportunity while visiting family in the UK in Yorkshire to zip down the M1 motorway to London for the show. Given the traffic jams the show generates, the zip kept sticking, but thanks to a 4:00 a.m. start, my daughter and I made it for opening time.

Up at 4:00 a.m. to see flowers? Yes, but these shows, despite the name, are about much more than flowers. They’re like Mecca for gardeners, top of countless bucket lists. They feature gardens designed by the world’s best, the very latest in new plant introductions, and more garden paraphernalia to purchase (including buckets) than one could possibly imagine.

The shows, both presented by the Royal Horticultural Society, are similar in content though held at different times of year — Chelsea in spring and Hampton in summer — which means the floral content differs, and at 25 acres (10 hectares), Hampton covers an area more than twice the size of Chelsea. The latter is in the heart of London where it’s easier to access by public transportation, and with a capped attendance it does seem easier to get around. Due to the sprawling nature of Hampton and the afternoon crowds streaming in, we did leave uncertain that we’d seen absolutely everything, but we did see plenty.

As expected, the display gardens were immaculate; colours divinely coordinated in the most surprising combinations that looked perfectly matched. Never again will I say two particular colours don’t look well together. One group of gardens used colour effectively to interpret a specific theme, that of the seven deadly sins. The theme of anger was indeed blazing mad with Japanese blood grass inter-planted with reds and oranges of yarrow and echinacea pierced by golden spikes of kniphofia, all in a bed of smoking lava. 

Gluttony was amusingly represented by giant food cans used as planters, the sardine can appropriately a water garden. The concept for envy was depicted by a grassy meadow in shades of brown. On a mound in the centre, enclosed by a screen of green Perspex, a lawn of artificial grass clipped to perfection — the grass is always greener . . .

These were the conceptual gardens while others were categorized as summer gardens, large show gardens (Australia took a gold), and smaller ones described as your garden, your budget. These modest
gardens were designed to demonstrate how a high quality garden can be achieved on a budget; the budgets for these ranging, ahem, from twelve to twenty-five thousand dollars. I may never look at a cell pack of annuals the same way.

Those attending the show with a far less restrictive budget than me had plenty of opportunity to spend wildly. I was tempted but had to pass on the giant bronze statue of a snail and the huge stone horse trough planter due to my flight baggage limit. I left the show with only a freebie packet of seed (Ammi majus).

Beyond the gardens and marketplace of the show, there were wonderful learning opportunities. A number of plant societies were present offering their specialized knowledge, while a display by the RHS called the invisible garden contained a number of interactive displays with microscopes. It encouraged visitors to discover the fascinating unseen world of insects, fungi and the myriad of other creatures that are invisible, yet so essential to a garden.

There was so much to see and so little time as the zippy motorway home awaited us. It was worth the drive.

Visit The Royal Botanical Gardens

It’s not far, only a half hour drive away. Maybe you’re a regular visitor. It’s hugely popular, although for many it’s one of those back of the mind, been meaning to visit places. And there will be others who’ve never heard of it, but they should. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington is the largest botanical garden in Canada, a national historical site, and a jewel of Ontario that we can enjoy year-round.

There are distinct areas to discover there: Hendrie Park on Plains Road holds the main cultivated gardens. It’s beside the RBG Centre, which holds the Mediterranean Garden. It's the RBG's only conservatory and it’s filled with tropical plants, a toasty warm place to visit on a winter’s day. Nearby is the Laking Garden, and around the corner along York Boulevard is the newly restored Rock Garden and the Arboretum. Beyond are natural areas with miles of trails that meander along the watery shores of Cootes Paradise, the marshy bay at the western end of Lake Ontario.

The gardens have been around for a hundred years and became “Royal” in 1930 when King George V gave the nod of approval. The place may be historic, however, it is thoroughly modern and there is a timeless quality to the plants and trees in the cultivated gardens and in the 1,100 hectares of the nature sanctuary. The Royal Botanical Gardens is a place of large numbers, in size and range of plants.

Visit in spring when 600 varieties of lilacs flood the lilac dell with that lovely familiar fragrance. Wander through the arboretum and you might finally identify that tree down your street that everyone argues about. Follow the Anishinaabe waadiziwin trail featuring indigenous plants or visit the Nature Interpretive Centre.

If native plants especially interest you, do see the Helen M. Kippax Wild Plant Garden in the Grindstone Creek Valley that adjoins Hendrie Park. Helen Kippax was of the Stedman family (a household name thanks to the hundreds of familiar, eponymous department stores located in communities across the country. She was one of the founding members of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects and Town Planners and was a frequent visitor and supporter of the RBG. In the 1940s, Helen would often take her nieces Mary, Margaret, and Ruth Stedman to visit the gardens where she passed on her love of horticulture to them. These visits resulted in a generous donation to the RBG by Mary Stedman and her late sisters and in 2008 the Helen M. Kippax Wild Plant Garden opened.

Inspiring and educational, this one-acre garden features six unique, native ecosystems filled with 15,000 plants, including 135 species of native trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses. The setting includes a band of richly diverse Carolinian forest characterized by trees and shrubs typically seen in the more southerly Carolinas. The other zones in the garden are Ontario prairie, oak savannah, woodland edge, and wetlands, all of which provide lush habitats that attract a range of wildlife. The gardens not only celebrate the life and legacy of Helen Kippax, but also offer visitors ideas and examples of balanced, low-maintenance ecosystems that can be adapted to their own landscapes.

There are more landscape ideas for the gardener in the adjoining Hendrie Park with its twelve themed garden areas where there are thousands of individual plants. Renowned is the Centennial Rose Garden which reopened in 2018 following a complete restoration. After fifty years, despite the best efforts of RBG's horticulture team, the original hybrid tea and floribunda roses were suffering from the same problems many rose growers face — damage from insects and disease. Appearance is everything in such a prestigious location, so the decision was made; they had to go.

The complete rose garden was replaced — including the soil. Half a metre was excavated and trucked away, and with it the residue of years of pesticides and fungicides use. After the soil was replaced and a trickle irrigation system installed, pathways were upgraded and made fully accessible. Gazebos, obelisks, and a reflecting pool went in, and an array of new informative signs installed to tell the story of roses.

Ah, the roses — 3,300 gorgeous, hardy, and disease resistant ones, 300 cultivated varieties in all. To deal with pests, the roses were interplanted with four thousand companion plants selected to repel pests and attract beneficial insects. This represents a modern, environmentally conscious approach to growing roses.

It’s also the ecologically sound approach the RBG that began in the Rock Garden which underwent a $20 million facelift in 2016. This has to be my favourite area, now named the David Braley & Nancy Gordon Rock Garden. Their generosity with donations from the local community and a $14 million commitment split between the Federal and Ontario governments funded a stunning restoration.

The Rock Garden was first created in 1929 with ten thousand tonnes of limestone quarried from the Red Hill Valley on the Niagara Escarpment. Originally an old gravel pit, the rock garden transformed a place of hard labour into one of natural beauty and relaxation. For decades it was a place for people to escape from the city and connect with nature, and a playground for kids who loved to clamber up and over the huge rocks that are still in place today.

Originally, 45,000 perennials grew in the garden. About half of these remain, and almost all the trees, fully grown now and towering over the garden. During the renovation, almost as many new plants were added and there are now more than 2,000 species growing there among the rocks and in the park-like setting below.

Hovering above is the magnificent new visitor centre constructed with arching Douglas fir beams and a glass wall that looks onto the gardens beyond. The centre is a multi-use building that wedding planners love. From there, undulating pathways and steps descend through the massive rocks and into the gardens below. For the physically challenged, alternate routes follow fully accessible pathways with gentle grades, which continue along and through plantings of rare trees and beautiful specimen plants. Drifts of grasses and flowers line the paths and border the pools that are fed by a waterfall cascading from the rock face. As the seasons change, so do the swaths of colour.

Across the road from the rock garden is the Laking Garden. Long ago this area, bigger than a pair of football fields, was a market garden, supplying produce to the neighbouring cities. Today, it holds the RBG’s collection of almost 40,000 perennial plants. Here, you can walk among a small forest of steel “trees”, sculptures that provide support for unique varieties of clematis selected from the thousands of hybrids. They climb and twine and when in bloom the trees become jaw dropping columns of colour.

Across the way are the iris and peony collections. When viewed in June and July from the belvedere at the head of the garden, the serried plantings become a multicolored carpet. Up close, it’s like walking among row after row of bouquets, every flower a gorgeous hue.

Other flowerbeds are brimming with a couple of thousand varieties of other perennials. The Laking Garden is where to discover plants that could feature in your own garden, and see them growing at their best, which is just one of the many roles of a botanical garden. The RBG connects people with plants and nature, it introduces them to the beauty and diversity, and helps preserve species and habitats that are vanishing.

It also provides courses, workshops, camps, and school programs year-round. There’s so much to see and do at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Maybe this is the year pay a visit and discover all it has to offer. It’s only a short drive away.