Garden Competitions in pre-1950s Canada

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.


The Canadian Pacific Railway Gardens Program

In eastern Canada, the rail companies were under pressure from city beautification groups to clean up storage yards, waste places, and the right-of-way. American examples of landscaped railway station gardens were cited as examples of what could be done. Elsewhere many Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) employees lived in isolated spots far from towns or villages. Gardening was seen as a pleasant recreation and the garden as a paradise in the wilderness — a place to maintain mental and physical health.

By 1907 gardening along the CPR’s track had become so widespread that the company decided more could be accomplished if the work was handled systematically. Accordingly, a Forest Department, and later a Floral Department, were formed to take control of existing garden work and to establish permanent gardens. The departmental duties included management of company nurseries and greenhouses, distribution of trees, shrubs, perennials, and bedding plants to employees, design and planting of station grounds, and planting trees along the right-of-way to create windbreaks. A few local gardeners were already employed to lay out and maintain various gardens. The Department also employed landscape architects to design the larger properties and advise employees on layout.

Company policy standardized the railway garden so that it became a recognizable entity. The site was generally squeezed between two horizontals: the track on one side and the access road on the other, creating a long narrow site, sometimes broken into two sections by a station entry road. Often the garden would be in front of the station or alongside it and always fenced in. The content and style of the gardens varied from stones (spelling out the name of simple designs of white-washed designs and the station with small plots of annuals, elaborate plant material. Usually the design was no more than a border of trees, shrubs, perennials and bedding plants along one or more sides of the lawn. Many gardens contained island beds (usually circular) full of clumps of perennials and annuals graduated by height, and dotted along the length of the site. The feeling was geometric, balanced and regular, although some naturally landscaped sites were designed as well. At Herbert Saskatchewan, the garden was laid out as a park (91 m x 37 m) with tree-shaded walks, flowering shrubs, walking paths and flower beds The Kenora, Ontario, station garden was a large sunken site, partly perennial garden and partly rock-garden. During the First World War, many station gardens were ploughed under and planted with vegetables to support the war effort.

To engender greater enthusiasm for employee gardens, the CPR sponsored garden competitions up into the 1950s and devoted a special column in the CPR Staff Bulletin to news and pictures of individual gardens.

The cost of maintaining such a large amount of landscaping, plus the advent of the Second World War, severely curtailed the life of the railway garden. The function of railways in Canadian society changed dramatically when airplanes, private cars and buses began to provide rapid, flexible, alternative transportation. Western settlement was well established and there was no longer a need to advertise prairie fertility. Railway passenger traffic drastically declined. As the railways became increasingly freight-oriented, the era of the railway garden also declined and finally perished.