Garden competitions were a means of promoting civic pride, neighbourhood clean-ups and beautification in pre-1940s Canada. Not content only to create parks, plant street trees, or put flower beds on the grounds of public buildings to create the city beautiful, horticultural reformers also wanted home owners to clean-up ugly yards, tear down board fences and plant trees, shrubs and flowers. Garden contests were sponsored by civic improvement associations, horticultural societies and private organizations to further this end. Theoretically, garden competitions infected everyone with an improving fever as neighbours attempted to outdo one another in their yards.
In Ottawa, Lady Minto, wife of the Governor-General, sponsored garden competitions from 1901 to 1903, re-established by her sister-in-law, Lady Grey (wife of the ninth Governor-General) from 1906 to 1911. Lady Minto wanted to encourage gardening, and eliminate ugly, neglected lots in Ottawa. The civic Improvement Society of Hamilton, Ontario sponsored lawn competitions, corner rockery contests and window box competitions. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company promoted employee garden competitions up into the 1950s, to foster morale and to beautify company property.
Typically, a prestigious patron was chosen to sponsor a competition or to hand out prizes and medals on awards night. Competitions were often restricted to specific neighbourhoods, usually to ease a judge’s travelling time. A complex point system was usually established, as well as a schedule of judge’s visits. Amateurs and professionals (professional gardeners, florists, and nurserymen) were judged separately. In the Lady Minto competitions, the judges visited each participating garden once a month for four months, awarding up to 60 points per visit per month. The 60 points were evenly divided among three categories: Order and Cleanliness, Floral Display and General Effect.
Although garden competitions have declined in popularity, and the stimulus of the City Beautiful Movement has waned, the competitions still live on in some city and town horticultural societies whose judges evaluate only members’ gardens.