Seed and nursery catalogues

Seed and nursery catalogues are important sources used by garden and landscape historians. From them, we can gather hints on trends of landscape styles, what flowers, vegetables and fruits were grown in a certain period, chart the rise and fall of individual nurseries, see illustrations of popular tools and garden and landscaping machinery, and add to our knowledge of horticultural history. Catalogues can add to the stories behind the people and the plants, and sometimes provide information on exploration, hybridizing, and introduction of certain plants.

Revised research guide now available: Down the Garden Path: A Guide to Researching the History of a Garden or Landscape

I have just published a revised version of my Down the Garden Path: A Guide to Researching the History of a Garden or Landscape. It is available in digital format for CDN$9.99 on iTunes. Down the Garden Path: A Guide to Researching the History of a Garden or Landscape, Revised is designed to help you document a landscape. Documentation is the first step to preserve, conserve or restore a landscape – whether it is a private garden, city park, industrial complex, cemetery, historic house and grounds, etc. The guide contains descriptions of the major useful sources (such as maps, photographs, diaries, etc.); how to do library, archival and web research; how to do oral history interviews; and includes samples of the forms most often used when compiling a history of a site. Please click on the following link:

Commercial Fruit Growing in Canada, from European Contact to 1930: An Outline now available

I have just published Commercial Fruit Growing in Canada, from European contact to 1930: An Outline. It is available in digital format for CDN$9.99 on iTunes. The book broadly sketches the history of Canada’s commercial fruit growing, touching on various themes such as the continuing refinement of horticultural practices, the process from cultivation to storage to transportation; the rise of standardization; and the influence of science and technology on horticulture. It is not a detailed history of horticultural techniques, such as orchard, market garden or greenhouse cultivation, nor an economic history of the Canadian fruit industry. I leave such histories to future horticultural historians. The story stops at 1930. Why? By 1930, most of the supports, tools, markets and science were in place that would carry the Canadian fruit industry into modern times. Please click on the following link:

Bibliography of Canadian Garden History Sources now available

A digital copy is now available for free on iTunes! Bibliography for Canadian Garden and Landscape History, up to 1950, Revised is a useful research tool for studying a small backyard garden of the 1890s or a city’s park system or a large cultural landscape such as the Grand-Pré Rural Historic District National Historic Site of Canada, Nova Scotia. Sources include books, articles, websites focussing on such major subjects as reference works, travel literature, ornamental gardening, exhibitions, floras, and prominent nursery men and women, botanists, landscape architects, general horticulture, nurseries, botanical gardens, parks, railway gardening, associations, and significant periodicals. Click on the following link to access the book:

Charles Arnold, 1818-1883

Arnold immigrated from England with his parents to Paris, Ontario, in 1833. In 1845, Arnold bought land, where he established the Paris Nurseries in 1852. A self-taught hybridist, he was an early reader of Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell. Arnold was for many years prominent in agricultural and scientific associations. In 1872, he won the gold medal at the Hamilton [Ontario] Exposition for a new, hardy white wheat. In 1876, he won the Philadelphia Centennial Medal for a superior exhibit of fruits. He originated several varieties of grapes and also hybridized wheat, strawberries, raspberries and peas.[i] An American firm paid him $2,000 for the right to sell his ‘American Wonder’ pea.[ii] Arnold was one of the first directors of the Fruit Growers’ Association of Ontario, a position he held until he died. His obituary praised his contributions to Canadian horticulture, noting “His success as a nurseryman is a fine example of the happy results which follow when a man of great enthusiasm tempered with good judgment finds himself free to pursue the kind of work he loves best.”[iii]

[i] “In Memoriam [Charles Arnold],” Canadian Horticulturist (May 1883): 101.

[ii] “Some Prominent Canadian Horticulturists—XII. Mr. Charles Arnold, Paris, Ont.,” Canadian Horticulturist (October 1890): 282. See also, “Arnold, Charles,” in, Liberty Hyde Bailey, ed., The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, Vol. F-K (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1922), 1564.

[iii] “In Memoriam [Charles Arnold],” 101.

Eastern Canada, country estates, pre-1940

The origin of the eastern Canadian country estate lies in the desire to recreate British examples built by royalty and the landed gentry, as well as the belief in the health-giving aspects of nature, enjoying nature because it was “the handiwork of God.” By the late 1800s, country homes could be found along the St. Lawrence, the coastal Maritimes and areas of Ontario (such as the Thousand Islands, Muskoka, the Kawarthas). One of Canada’s earliest summer estates was built in the early 1780s by the Governor of Quebec General Frederick Haldiman on the spectacular cliffs outside Quebec City. An early Upper Canadian example was Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe’s country retreat, ‘Castle Frank,’ built in 1796 near Toronto. ‘Stamford Park,’ the summer residence of Sir Peregrine Maitland, a later Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, was built in the 1820s near Niagara Falls, and was noted for its extensive British-style grounds and its panoramic view of the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, and the high grounds of Upper Canada.

The early country seats located along the St. Lawrence River outside Quebec City had landscapes created in the style of the Picturesque to emulate the wild idealized landscapes of 17th-century painters. Dead trees, wild ravines and gushing torrents were part of the language of this style – elements easily found in the early Canadas.

Owning a country home became yet another part of the social yardstick, measuring wealth, social position, and the owner’s awareness of emulating European culture. Country properties could be less than 10 acres (4 hectares) or could encompass up to 800 acres (324 hectares). By the 1930s, a Canadian landscape architect noted that 3 1/2 acres (2 hectares) was the minimum size for a country property.

As personal wealth increased and country living became very fashionable, the locally built, small cottage gave way to architect-designed houses, furnished with architect-designed furniture. The country houses of the Canadian political, social, and commercial elite ranged in size and varied in design and luxuriousness, some were even built of stone replicating a French chateau. Some owners also ran working farms on their country estates.

The requirements of siting a summer home did not change much over a hundred years. The prospective owner had first to find a good location accessible by horse, boat, rail, or later car, that would have scenic value or at least the acreage and conditions to create beautiful surroundings. The house would often be sited near water or to take advantage of a view. When the grounds of a pre-First World War summer home were landscaped, they were frequently laid out and planted by a jobbing gardener. After the war, professional landscape architects were more often employed to design extensive grounds. A typical estate landscape mimicked their British counterparts with magnificent stretches of lawn embellished by trees, shrubs, and flower borders, usually highlighted against a forest backdrop. By 1910, these estate landscapes could also include bowling greens, badminton and tennis courts, gardener’s lodges, lily ponds, greenhouses, massive perennial borders, specialty gardens, statuary, fountains, flagstone walks, woodland trails, riding stables, grand boathouses filled with mahogany speedboats, and later, swimming pools.

In the interwar period, a favoured layout, inspired by the currently popular Edwardian garden style, championed by Gertrude Jekyll, was the practice of designing a landscape as a series of rooms. Lawn continued to be a major component, but it was now used as a transition element, connecting house to terrace or flowerbed to forest, garden room to room. Specialty gardens abounded: a typical design incorporated rock gardens, rose gardens, or even woodland gardens of shade-loving plants and shrubs. Vincent Massey’s country home, ‘Batterwood House’ near Port Hope, Ontario, or F. Cleveland Morgan’s home, ‘Le Salbot’ outside Montreal were outstanding examples of this style.

By the 1930s, Canadian estate gardens reflected the eclecticism of garden styles then prevalent in Britain. For example, gardens representative of different countries and eras were intermixed: Italian architectonic gardens (such as ‘Les Groisardiès’ on the Ile d’Orléans) existed side-by-side with Elizabethan knot gardens, Medieval gardens, Japanese gardens (such as Lady Eaton’s Japanese garden at Villa Fiora in rural Ontario), Victorian carpet bedding, as well as more naturalistic garden layouts.


The photo is the residence of the Hon. T.A. Lowe, Renfrew, Ontario, ca. 1916. Library and Archives Canada, 3326622.

How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm?

School garden programs began in Canada early in the 20th century in response to disturbing changes in society, as industrialization and urbanization increasingly challenged traditional beliefs, and stimulated ever–increasing migration to the cities. Many commentators feared the collapse of rural society and the weakening of the nation owing to the deterioration of what was believed to be Canada’s major industry: agriculture. Abandoned farmhouses had become mute symbols of rural malaise.

The solution to this problem, advanced by some theorists, was a reeducation of rural society by changing the school curriculum to adapt to new circumstances. Traditionally, primary education had been viewed as religious and moral, based on rote memorization of the “3 Rs”, Latin and Greek, and character development. New educational theories imported from Europe promoted a shift from traditional book-centred education to a child-centred one, where the individuality of every child and the right to education designed to suit the child’s own nature, needs, aspirations, and interests were stressed. Learning was to be interesting, even exciting, as the child “learned by doing” and the “doing” was to be related to the world outside the classroom. The natural world was considered to be one of the more relevant teaching aids, because of its closeness to a child’s own experiences.

One of the first nature-study/school-gardens curriculum programs in Canada was sponsored in 1904 by the Montreal philanthropist William C. Macdonald. The three-year pilot program was successfully administered in 25 schools divided equally among Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

By 1907, the Ontario Department of Education, in conjunction with the Ontario Agricultural College, had established guidelines to be followed or used as models in schools across Canada. The model included issuing teacher-training certificates in nature study and school gardens; provincial grants for tools, plant material and seeds, distribution of helpful publications, and establishing nurseries to supply the needs of the gardens. A revised curriculum integrated school-garden activities into daily lessons, so that garden activities served as a concrete basis for learning mathematics, reading, composition, drawing and spelling.

By 1914, thousands of Canadian school children had wielded hoes in a school garden. Devoted to vegetables, annuals, and some cereals, the usual layout was a no-nonsense design of individual and group plots squared off, rectilinear, and static, often sited behind the school.

However, by 1916, much of the idealism supporting school-gardens curriculum was fading. Many factors contributed to the eventual demise of the school-garden program. Criticisms ranged from failure of the gardens to thrive because of inadequate summer care, to the difficulties of obtaining enough water. But the main problem was the ideological split present nearly from the start of the program between idealistic, educational reformers who wanted to produce well-educated children, whether urban or rural, and those who supported a mainly vocational curriculum dedicated to producing children eager to become future farmers of Canada.

Many rural parents also criticized the program claiming that it kept their children off the educational ladder that led from primary school to university and a city career. In the end, financial restrictions caused by the Depression finally killed the school garden.

For more details on this movement, see Edwinna von Baeyer’s Rhetoric and Roses: A History of Canadian Gardening, 1900 to 1930.

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.

Vegetables dominate early Canadian horticultural history

Canada’s early horticultural history was dominated by writings, letters and reports on vegetable growing. This is quite understandable given the need for early explorers to feed themselves and their crews. Fruit was mainly gathered in the wild. Cultivating fruit trees, bushes or plants would only come later when exploration gave way to settlement. For the first years of Canada’s horticultural history, vegetable growing would predominate.