Friday, April 26, 2013

The Toronto Botanical Gardens - Part Two

In my last blog, I started talking about the Toronto Botanical Gardens (TBG), particularly the Entry Garden Walk designed by Piet Oudolf. Although it’s great to have such an illustrious name associated with the TBG, the majority of the current gardens were actually designed and planted by local firm Martin Wade Landscape Architects. And despite some shortcomings, I think the locals have done us proud. 

As mentioned in my previous blog, the TBG is a botanical garden still in its infancy. It covers only a small area around the entrance to the building, and this is divided into even smaller, pocket gardens. I suppose this is almost unavoidable for public gardens like the TBG whose mandate it is to educate – they try to have a bit of everything in an attempt to satisfy every kind of visitor. Unfortunately, this almost always leads to a hodgepodge of gardens, without any overall sense of purpose or message. How can one tie together a knot garden, spiral mound, kitchen garden, naturalistic garden and a show plants garden, all within steps of each other? Nonetheless, I find there are some real gems among the individual gardens, if one can block out the rest. 

My favourite area is one where Martin Wade have taken their cue from Oudolf, and found their inspiration in nature. However, instead of Oudolf's pairie, they have used the Canadian landscape as their template. The “nature garden” is meant to recall both the Carolinian forest of which Toronto is the northern limit, and the Canadian Shield habitat north of Toronto. It's a rugged and stony garden, built on a series of berms and punctuated by large bolders.  The planting consists of thick groupings of shrubs and small trees, with an understory of mostly native grasses and perennials. The paths are simply lined with wood chips, which has proven to be a surprisingly sturdy choice. Although occupying only a small space, the garden feels quite large thanks to the undulating land forms and the dense shrubbery, which create an effective sense of enclosure and mystery. 


This is also a garden that manages to look great throughout the year. In the spring, there are flowering trees and shrubs, such as dogwoods and redbuds, in the summer general lushness and spots of colour from perennials, and in the fall, the characteristic vivid foliage of Eastern Canada, found in both grasses and woody shrubs and trees. In the winter, the garden mellows to somber greys and tans, but still provides satisfying structure. Overall, although this garden was created as a very overt nod to 'nature' and to satisfy our current public concern with the environment, I think it is a successful example of what the Canadian gardening aesthetic might look like.  I hope it can serve as a model for Canadian gardeners to look to the beauty of their own landscapes for inspiration, rather than always importing garden styles

The nature garden transitioning from summer (August) to winter (January).
As we have just come through winter, I also can't help but remark how the understated winter appearance of this garden contrasts so radically with the winter garden planted across from it. The latter is maintained by a commercial sponsor (President's Choice), and features their latest assortment of showy or brash (depending on your taste) conifers and winter shrubs. Bigger berries, brighter foliage and more striking variegation are the order of the day in this garden. The result is a very bright and cheerful spot in winter, but one that looks exactly the same all year round. I belong to the camp that believes gardens should reflect the seasons, not fight them. In winter, there should be death and decay, greys and tans. How else can we fully appreciate spring when it finally arrives? Still, I don’t want to knock this garden too much – in Toronto, where a snowstorm in April doesn't count as a surprise, one can be forgiven for a few neon evergreens and plastic-like red berries. 

Another pocket garden that is quite interesting is the Westview Terrace garden, which features a long curved waterway. I’m not a big fan of the colour used for the bottom of this waterway, but from certain angles I can see how it picks up from the building. The planting, however, is quite good, and once again mixes a wide variety of perennials and grasses with shrubs and trees. These are not as ‘wild’ as in the nature garden, but there is a nice mix of relaxed, native grasses and shrubs with more cultivated plants, such as Japanese maples and hellebores. 

The TBG features many other little gardens, which I have included in some pictures below. There is certainly a lot packed into a little space, maybe a little too much. Still, the TBG offers visitors a unique and engaging garden experience, something many Torontonians are grateful to finally have.

The knot garden, featuring a largely white colour scheme within tightly clipped boxwood shapes.

The kitchen garden (both pictures above), where traditional vegetables from a different part of the world are grown every year.
The spiral mound took quite a few years to get right.  The plants just wouldn't take to the steep slopes, and visitors running up and down didn't help either.  But finally willows proved most successful - you can see a corner of the latest incarnation of the spiral mound in the first picture of the knot garden above, in the upper right corner. I must say that I didn't quite get the inclusion of the spiral mound in the design, but it's been popular with visitors and especially kids.

The Terrace Garden is another one that has proven to be a challenge, with plants once again not taking readily to the sloping growing conditions. Toronto's very hot and dry summers might also have something to do with it.  It will be interesting to see what the gardening staff will try here this year.
A full parking lot is common on a nice day.  It's good to see so many visitors, but I also can't help think of the irony - so much pollution spent to get to a green space and fresh air.