From coast to coast, blooming treasures await discovery. Celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial by enjoying the variety of gardens across the land. From Canada’s capital to the country’s eastern and western shores – and all places in between – gardens are a-blossoming, awaiting you. Whether it’s the Aboriginal Gardens in Montreal’s famous Botanical Gardens, a rare example of a walled garden in Ottawa, or Victoria’s renowned transformation of a quarry into Butchart Gardens, ingenious interpretations of gardens exist everywhere. From west coast to east coast, here are my top picks for the best Canadian gardens to visit.
9 Amazing Canadian Gardens
1- Victoria’s Butchart Gardens
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Imagine a disused quarry, with its gaping hole exposing layers of rock and pockets that just might be the perfect backdrop for a spectacular garden.
Now a National Historic Site of Canada, Butchart Gardens had an unexpected industrial beginning.
In the early 1900s, Jennie Butchart looked at the gaping hole of the limestone quarry on her property and saw an opportunity. Her husband Robert Pim Butchart was a cement manufacturer.
He built a cement plant at Tod Inlet north of Victoria in 1904 and started extracting the stone which helped provide Portland cement from Victoria, south to San Francisco in California. Jennie’s transformation of the pit to gardens was sheer genius.
Enterprising Jennie ordered wagon-loads of topsoil to be dumped in the quarry and before long, the now-world-famous Sunken Garden started attracting visitors.
From 1906-1929, the expansion of Butchart Gardens was phenomenal: Japanese, Italian, and Rose gardens took root and prospered.
By the 1920s, more than 50,000 visitors had come to stroll the fantastical displays she created.
Not quite single-handedly, Jennie had created one of British Columbia’s – if not Canada’s – most renowned, internationally beloved gardens.
Along with the appreciation of flowers is the family’s interest in theatre, music and special events such as the perennially popular fireworks evenings.
The Christmas show at Butchart Gardens is a festive pleaser, where fanciful lights illuminate the winter gardens.
Check the website events menu so that when visiting, you can marry viewing flowers, trees, herbs and intricate landscape design with a special happening.
It’s undoubtedly one of the best Canadian gardens to visit.
2- Tofino’s Botanical Gardens
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Tofino’s Botanical Gardens is a delightful mix of art, native and introduced plants.
Intriguing eco-designed buildings await, picturesquely dotted about a 12-acre (5-hectare) coastal, temperate rainforest.
As an unusual but popular offering, visitors can stay overnight at the Ecolodge. Surely there’s no better way to appreciate coastal rainforest than to experience it, day and night?
Boardwalks and stone pathways wend from the visitor’s centre to herb and kitchen gardens and the duck pond.
Breathe deeply of fragrances such as lavender and mint, then marvel at Jan Janzen’s wooden gazebo beside the pond.
No pegs, screws or nails were used by the artist-builder, so the structure is in itself a marvel.
Then explore the forests where “pocket gardens” await. Here find plants from other temperate rainforest zones throughout the world such as Chile and Japan, plus art installations featuring creations designed to weather the vagaries of climate.
At the shore, a couple of bird blinds overlook the Tofino Mudflats Wildlife Management Area – bring binoculars to check for birds and mammals.
3- Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory
Imagine the depths of winter, with snow crunching underfoot – or, in the heady heat of summer – coming across four towering glass pyramids rising from the banks of the North Saskatchewan River.
Muttart Conservatory is one of the best all-weather Canadian gardens to visit. Whatever the weather, each structure in Muttart Conservatory represents biomes (habitats) housing an astonishing array of botanicals from around the world.
The Tropical Pyramid is a lush, humid environment where brilliant tropical flowers and plants thrive in a humid environment.
The Arid Pyramid juxtaposes that world with its sometimes stark seeming but fantastically shaped cacti and succulents which survive on less than 25cm of rainfall per annum.
Muttart Conservatory’s Temperate Pyramid offers a glimpse into Edmonton’s sort of climate, where the four seasons of growth can be witnessed.
With careful temperature and humidity control, these plants experience dormancy in winter through to spring’s growth, blossoming and “die-back” come autumn.
Lastly, the Feature Pyramid blossoms with special events.
In 2017 for instance, from July 1 through September 17, the display features a floral Canadian Flag, examples of native Canadian plants, and much more.
4- Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm
“The Farm” as the CEF is affectionately known, was created in 1896 when settlement of Canada made an understanding of agriculture absolutely crucial.
Because the country’s vast size includes climate and soil, light and other variances in growing conditions, the federal government inaugurated a series of Experimental Farms across the nation.
In those times, everything from soil science to animal husbandry, entomology ( the study of insects) to horticulture was being studied – and showcased to the world.
First farm Director William Saunders took pride in showing international visitors what was growing – and how state-of-the-art scientific development affected every aspect of agriculture, including barn construction and storage of hay.
The Farm continues today, as a living museum of species we can examine and it’s one of the more unusual Canadian gardens on the list.
More than this, the Central Experimental Farm is a National Historic Site because it’s a repository of the nation’s agricultural heritage.
The Farm is free to visitors who can stroll the Macoun Sunken garden, Japanese Garden, and sprawling perennial beds where wave upon wave of blossoms greet us.
In spring, revel to the first flowering trees such as magnolias and then, lilac shrubs. Later, explore the rose gardens – one showcases Canadian Hardy Roses bred here at the Farm.
Also on-site is the Arboretum, where some 3,000++ trees grow, including a sprawling Bebb Oak which was planted in 1898.
Easily glimpsed as one drives Prince of Wales Drive which bisects the Farm and Arboretum, it grows in stately harmony with the beautiful crabapple trees on the opposite side of that roadway.
A favourite pastime of Ottawans is to cycle, drive or stroll here, drinking in the sight and breathing in the fragrance of crabapple blossoms in mid-May.
Immediately adjacent to the Arboretum find the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, a public education project managed by the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Club.
Their Backyard garden project features rock, woods, pond and other gardens where species have identification signs.
There’s no better place to go for gardeners to discover what grows where, than to visit The Farm.
Imagine living in a stately Georgian limestone home and having a penchant for a beautiful garden.
Then imagine designing a stone wall which would surround and shelter a formal planting of fruit and other trees, perennials and annuals.
This is Maplelawn, a once private home (now The Keg Manor restaurant).
These Canadian gardens were designated a national historic site in 1989 because they are an extremely rare example of a walled early 19th Century Canadian Garden.
Maintained lovingly by volunteers from Friends of Maplelawn, it’s lovely to enter this extraordinary oasis in the heart of Ottawa’s Westboro Village.
In spring, tulips compete with apple blossoms for your attention; in early summer, the old peonies for which Maplelawn was famous, still fragrance the air.
Pathways lead to quiet corners featuring picnic tables and benches so come, bring a book, bring a picnic, and tarry a while.
Maplelawn’s sheltering walls not only reflect the heat and keep us cozy – they provide a welcome barrier to traffic noise, too.
6- Gatineau 2017 MOSAÏCANADA
From June 30 to October 15 in 2017, Mother Earth visited Gatineau at MOSAÏCANADA with a floral sculptural presence that graced Jacques-Cartier Park located in Ottawa’s twin city, overlooking the Ottawa River.
What is MOSAÏCANADA?
Growing, floral installation art whereby a sculpture’s basic shape – say of a horse, for example – is rendered in welded steel. Then, sets of “pockets” filled with soil are affixed to the form, then plants are poked into this covering.
Imagine grasses being planted for the mane and tail of a horse, and other florals being planted to describe musculature and conformation.
When the sculpture is installed in its setting, the plants grow, and the artworks are transformed as the seasons progress.
In celebration of Canada’s 150th, 40 or so different installations commemorated the sesquicentennial.
7- Montreal Botanical Gardens’ First Nations Garden
Montreal’s internationally renowned Botanical Gardens are part of the city’s Espace pour la vie centre, which also includes the Biodome, Insectarium and more.
No visit is complete without seeing the First Nations Gardens, because here we see delicate woodland native plants such as wild ginger and sacred Eastern White Cedar trees, through to domesticated plants.
The Three Sisters – beans, squash and maize (corn) – were foundation species for First Nations, who domesticated these crops which became staples of their diet.
As well, don’t miss the Nordic Zone, where northern taiga (black spruce forest) is replicated. Here find areas of exposed granitic rock where vegetation clings to life on the sparse topsoil found in cracks and crevices.
An interpretation pavilion showcases modern First Nations life along with traditional uses of plants – from birchbark canoes to medicinal herbs and their uses.
What better place to visit during the 150th celebrations, than this aboriginal garden, where we recall First Peoples’ use of and respect for the land.
8- Reford Gardens (Les Jardins de Métis)
Les Jardins de Métis represent the ongoing envisioning of founding gardener Elsie Reford’s gardens bordering the Métis River, 220 miles east of Quebec City in Quebec’s Gaspé region.
She transformed the family’s bare-bones fishing camp over a thirty-year period. After they were opened to the public in 1962, Reford Gardens has become a destination of distinction and one of the top Canadian gardens to visit.
Rather like Jennie Butchart north of Victoria, Elsie contended with raw nature where topsoil was a luxury.
Here, temperatures at 48.51º N. latitude proved temperamental at best, while raw, bitter winds combined with deep snow come winter time continue to be problematic.
It was Elsie who built up the soil through composting leaves she’d bartered for with neighbouring farmers.
It was she who dug holes, planted, built, stone walls and a host of other strenuous tasks, transforming the bush camp into gardens where rare species still thrive.
Just as at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm, Elsie borrowed from Englishwoman Gertrude Jekyll’s landscape design principles.
Some of the concepts at Les Jardins de Métis include incorporation of picturesque, often surprising or “secret” views.
Garden visitors will be delighted by the sudden appearance of a beautiful, “unplanned” vista.
On Elsie’s Long Walk, pathways of cement and shells delineated by stone walls give way to a view of the St. Lawrence River.
9- Kingsbrae Gardens
St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick
With 10 hectares (27 acres) of gardens and more than 50,000 perennials, Kingsbrae Gardens is a must-see spectacle of blossoms, plus fascinating outdoors sculpture installations.
On the list of Canadian gardens, this one is a real family favourite. Kids like the animals such as goats, alpacas, peacocks and rabbits who live here.
A favourite of visitors is the maze created from cedar trees. Mazes have been around since the Greek traveller and writer Herodotus visited an Egyptian Labyrinth in the 5th Century, BC.
Since that time, gardeners the world over created such “walking puzzles” where hedges are grown to border pathways which can either lead a visitor out – or further astray inside the labyrinth.
Today, many labyrinths are built as mindfulness meditations, adding another layer of interpretation and meaning to exploring them.
Check Kingsbrae’s website for a host of arty and other summer events, and be sure to visit the onsite gift and plant shop.
Katharine Fletcher is a keen gardener who lives near Ottawa and is the author of three companion guides to the National Capital Region.
More Canadian gardens
By Ilona Kauremszky
Here’s a spring peek at some of Canada’s other great gardens:
10- Niagara Falls gardens
My parents, especially Mom, loved to while away an afternoon in an enclosed steamy glass greenhouse situated near the famous Niagara Falls.
As kids we piled into the station wagon and headed just past the mighty Horseshoe Falls to literally spend hours inside the tropical paradise, rife with wild orchids, ferns and palm trees.
A real find, the historic property makes a pleasurable tonic to the final days of winter.
Styled in seasonal flower beds lush with Easter lilies, forced spring bulbs, Azaleas, and the rare Schizanthus the gardeners hand-pollinate these seeds which are not commercially available.
At the Niagara Parks Commission daffodils are so big the accolade: “The Daffodil Capital of North America” is often heard.
Meanwhile its sister plant, the Narcissus also profusely flowers there and so do tulips.
In springtime find the Orange Queen, Blueberry Ripple and palettes of pink tulips adorning the park’s gardens.
Calendar of Blooms:
Spring show: January till Easter
Easter Display: Easter weekend lasting 3 weeks prior.
Mid-May: Hydrangea Show
Location: 7145 Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls
11- Ottawa’s Tulip Gardens
There’s a beautiful friendship between Canada and The Netherlands and each spring, visitors to the national capital will see this strong bond through a profusion of colourful perennials.
Ever since the first Canadian Tulip Festival made its debut in 1953, these happy tulips have turned Canada’s capital into a colourful flower show.
We can thank the Dutch for that.
As World War II ravaged across Europe, a young Dutch Princess Juliana with her two princess daughters boarded a Halifax-bound ship then made her way to Ottawa.
She later gave birth to Princess Margriet Francisca at the Ottawa Civic Hospital.
The federal government symbolically made the hospital room Dutch soil and to this day Princess Margriet is the only royal ever to be born in North America.
In addition, the Dutch were deeply moved by Canada’s role in the liberation of the Netherlands; thus the countless precious tulips.
For me as a university student, the heavy weight of long dreary school days seemed to be lifted off my shoulders when I used to take long walks in spring along the Rideau Canal.
Memories of the Crayola-dipped tulips splayed on the canal shoulders with clusters of the bright perennials dancing around Dows Lake and the Parliament Hill have stuck with me over the years.
Location: Dows Lake, Major’s Hill Park, Parliament Hill
12- Burlington’s Royal Botanical Garden
They had me at the whiff of lilacs. This floral emporium perched between Toronto and Niagara has Canada’s largest lilac collection.
Rows upon rows of lilac bushes and trees will certainly get you lost in the Mother Nature wonderland.
The city’s rocky hard northern part is now a green gem, Burlington’s Royal Botanical Garden.
Back in the Roaring Twenties, Thomas B. McQuesten purchased some farmland and created a rock garden by depositing rocks into an eyesore open pit.
Head to the Lilac Dell Arboreteum to see the lilacs but of course, tulips, peonies and irises are crowd pleasers too.
At the Rock Garden, an explosion of 100,000+ tulips will surely make you smile with their bright-hued petals.
Arguably lauding the title of “Canada’s biodiversity hotspot,” it’s no wonder. The RBG reports the grounds are the home to more species of native plants than any other area in the country.
April-Magnolia, cherry trees
May –Tulips and Lilacs, dogwood and crab apples
Location: 680 Plains Road West, Hamilton/Burlington, Ontario
13- Edmonton’s Devonian Botanic Gardens
Feel the stresses of city life roll off you at this outdoor oasis surrounded by rolling hills.
Edmonton’s Devonian Botanic Gardens is the most northerly botanic garden in Canada.
It’s part of the University of Alberta and considered among the best gardens in the country.
It has gardens and ecological preserves, including indoor greenhouses where butterflies, succulents and orchids flourish.
Good for the casual grower and for the serious green thumber, I like the variety of botanical wonders.
One of the crowd pleasers is the fragrant herbal garden. Visit these large island green beds and smell the aromatic lavender and mint.
Another advantage is the stunning Patrick Seymour Alpine Garden, where the rare elusive stunted northern alpine trees and dwarf Rhododendrons that normally propagate in higher elevations show off their colourful luster.
Especially beautiful is the Eunomia oppositifolia known as aethionema, a dense cluster of pink flowers these early-spring floral gems are a native from Lebanon and thrive on the south facing arid slopes.
The peaceful airy Japanese Garden is ideal for meditation and inspired by the traditional kaiyou style (meaning “strolling garden”).
It’s popular with wedding parties and there are plenty of spots to pose for those special nuptial shots.
May – Alpine Garden for alpine foliage watching
June – Japanese Spring Festival
Ilona Kauremszky is a Canadian freelance writer who is passionate about gardening and has been gardening since she was a little girl.
As you can see, Canadian gardens are fascinating to explore. There’s a garden in every city and some impressive gardens in places you might not expect.
You could easily plan a trip to Canada around a garden theme as well as enjoy lots of other non-gardening activities along the way.
When planning your trip to Canada, make sure to consider visiting Vancouver Island. Here’s a great post about Vancouver Island camping and RV holidays.