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.
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 visitors 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, Mother Earth will visit Gatineau at MOSAÏCANADA. Her floral sculptural presence will grace 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 commemorate the sesquicentennial. A path will allow visitors to wander the living sculptures – allow 90 minutes for the free tour.
Looking for more places to visit in Quebec?
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.
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.
See Destination Canada’s website for more information on what to do in Canada