The Hidden Gardens
Published in the Toronto Star – December 2, 2017
We are big advocates for seeking out gardens in our travel. “Big Name Gardens” like Kew Gardens in London, UK, or the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York City are astonishing and worth the trip. We have found over the years that garden inspiration takes many forms and exists in almost every city. We have stumbled upon gardens that provide unexpected awe, and others that are quite modest. But the delight in finding a unique and unexpected garden always makes a trip memorable.
A few years ago, while attending a conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, Mark searched “botanical garden Las Vegas” online in desperation. He was ‘done’ with the ‘Strip’: the lights, the noise and of course the smoky airconditioned air.
That was when he found the Botanical Garden at Springs Preserve (https://www.springspreserve.org/explore/botanical-garden.html). Who would imagine that the “City of Lights” is home to the largest collection of Mojave Desert cacti and succulent plants, dispersed over 110 acres of show gardens, hiking paths and naturalized feature gardens? Indeed, this oasis is a welcome and unexpected respite from the sprawling convention centers and blinking lights of the city – a discovery of unexpected awe.
Most visitors to Vegas don’t even know there is a botanical garden located there. Mark has returned four times now and he is impressed by the four outdoor amphitheatres, a butterfly conservatory, an excellent restaurant and gift shop, and many opportunities to learn about the flora and fauna of the south west American desert.
Last fall, Ben had a similarly uplifting experience when he stopped in Berlin for some Cold War history. Standing at a site along the former Berlin Wall, he happened upon “The Treehouse”. While East Germany was under communist rule, a scrap of land belonging to East Germany was left on the West side of the famous Berlin Wall.
Beginning in 1982, West German resident Osman Kalin started clearing the land on this sliver of real estate and established a vegetable garden. It is said that when Kalin was confronted by East German guards, he made peace by offering them vegetables from the allotment. When his sunflowers started reaching up to peer above the wall, he decided to build the tree house which still stands today.
Osman no longer maintains the garden at the base of his tree house, but neighbours carry on his tradition now that the wall is long gone. While this small garden plot is a far cry from the manicured botanical or estate gardens of Europe, it is a worthy stop for gardeners and historians alike to be inspired by the community-building power of a garden. This garden is more significant for what it stands for than any outstanding physical features.
At home in Toronto, there are unexpected gardens in hidden corners which knit together their communities across the city. Thorogood Community Garden is one such place in Toronto’s east-end Riverside neighbourhood. Named for Mr. and Mrs. Thorogood, long time residents of Allen Avenue (where the garden is located), the compact garden is tucked away on a former residential lot where community members have been maintaining and funding the garden through “grassroots” efforts since the 1980’s.
Today, the garden is not just a community focal point for locals, but a gathering place for pollinators also. It features native and blooming plants that are intended to attract bees, both native and domesticated honey bees.
Another Toronto garden we love is the Rosetta McClain Gardens atop the Scarborough Bluffs (https://web.toronto.ca/data/parks/prd/facilities/complex/19/index.html). Rosetta and her husband, Robert Watson (Wat) McClain, built the garden on a parcel of farmland inherited from her father, and after her death Wat decided to donate the property to the City of Toronto in Rosetta’s memory. The beauty of Rosetta and Wat’s shared passion for gardening is still spectacular – hard to believe that it is free to visit. It is harder still to believe that so few Torontonians have heard of it. For us, this garden has special meaning thanks to a photograph of Ben’s grandfather (Mark’s Dad).
Len is pictured standing next to a birdbath he had built. This was one of his first commercial landscape jobs in the 1940’s, with business partner John Weall. You will understand why this garden is a personal favourite of ours.
Getting ‘to the root’ of a place and tapping into the history of it is always a rewarding part of travel. What we have found is that gardens of all shapes and sizes can tell interesting stories about the communities where they exist.
Digging (pun intended) for these stories enhances the experience of visiting a garden, wherever it may be located. While it isn’t always obvious – there is always more to discover, at home and abroad.