Toronto Star column – published January 3, 2015
The Taj Mahal of Public Spaces
Welcome to the New Year: a time of reflection, a time to dream, and a time to set some goals. I plan on doing plenty of all three in this column over the next while. Please join me. To begin, let’s look at a few of the public green spaces that we enjoy in this wonderful city of Toronto.
The city of Toronto website reports that there are over 1,600 parks in the 416 area. These include such gems as Allan Gardens, in the heart of ‘downtown’, complete with public greenhouses that provide an eyeful of colour and a nose full of fragrance. Right now you can catch the Christmas flower exhibit in its final week (ends January 11th). It is worth the effort. But I digress.
Toronto parks run the gambit from the granddaddy, High Park, in the west end to parkettes that pepper the city here and there.
We use parks to play, walk the dog, picnic, sit and drink coffee while we people-watch, play on our cell phones and laptop computers, and sometimes we nap there (though not today, likely). When parks function at their best they educate us on subjects of nature including birding, the use of plants in the landscape and even garden design. Parks that serve the highest calling are called ‘botanical gardens’, a term that is foreign to Torontonians, with the exception of you who have travelled to other cities where botanical gardens exist.
Well, this is not entirely true, as we do have our own ‘botanical’ garden at Leslie and Lawrence Avenues in Don Mills. The Toronto Botanical Garden earned its name 10 years ago when it graduated from a public garden and education centre known then as the Civic Garden Centre and became an authentic ‘botanic’ garden. In 2004 the Kathy and George Dembroski Centre of Horticulture was built. The property is, at three acres, the smallest garden of its kind in North America. It is not a major tourist destination but it has the potential to become one. More on that later.
In an effort to understand how impactful botanical gardens can be on a city and its people, I have travelled to several of them in the last year. Here is my report.
This past autumn I had the opportunity to travel to Australia and New Zealand with my friend Dave, who had business ‘down under’. My business was more ‘monkey’ business than anything as I wanted to check out the trees and gardens in the major urban centres for myself. I had never been to this part of the world before. And yes, there were monkey puzzle trees there.
Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne
Our first stop was Melbourne, located in the southern half of this large continent/country on the east coast. When we were there in late October it was early spring (everything down there is reverse of ours). Rhododendrons were in full and glorious bloom, as were azaleas, lilacs and a host of plants that I didn’t recognize. Writing and broadcasting about gardens for a few years now, I often receive more credit than I deserve as a gardening ‘expert’. For the most part, I recognised plants in Australia from my experience with them as indoor, tropical species or I just, as was more often the case, simply didn’t have a clue.
The Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne are huge at 363 hectares or 897 acres. They are located more or less central to the oldest part of the city, which makes sense as the British colonialists that settled there almost 200 years ago saw fit to sequester land on the fringe of the early settlement for the purpose of creating a botanical garden in 1846. This one is packed with enormous trees and shrubs of countless variety. All of them labelled with the species, genus and (where appropriate) variety. This labelling, in the definition of a ‘botanical garden’, is essential in order to get sanctioned as an authentic botanical garden by the International Association of Botanic Gardens, which represents over 1,800 gardens in this classification worldwide.
There are greenhouses, a children’s garden with security fence and day programs, ponds and water fountains, practice golf greens, a sundial garden and a restaurant that we prevailed upon for a hearty lunch. In short, the Melbourne botanical garden has it all. According to their website this botanical garden attracts over a million people a year. What could be better?
Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Well, the Sydney Botanical Gardens were better. Unbelievable, if you ask me, how the Aussies could improve upon such an outstanding example of sophisticated green space in Melbourne with another botanical experience in Sydney that absolutely blew me away.
Take all of the features of the Melbourne botanical gardens, as described above (this saves you time and the Star a lot of paper) and add to it the natural feature of water. Only Stanley Park would serve as a close example here in Canada. The land on which the Sydney Botanical Gardens sits is not only surrounded by water but actually defines the harbour in the main part of the city (there are several ‘harbours’ in Sydney).
Imagine a 63 hectare/157 acre parcel of land that juts out into the blue waters of Sydney harbour, loaded with magnificent specimens of mature trees, many collected from other corners of the earth, flower gardens, an extensive rose garden, water features, greenhouses, banquet facilities (there was a wedding going on in one of them, spilling out onto a landscaped terrace that was fit for a princess) and the Sydney Opera House tucked next to the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge.
This was an “Am I really here?”, “Is this real?”, “Pinch me and maybe I will be back in Kansas, Toto” kind of experience. For anyone who enjoys a breath of fresh air in the midst of a busy, vibrant city, this is Oz. For a gardener it is paradise.
Sydney’s Royal Botanical Garden is a major tourist attraction. According to their website more than 3 million people visited the site last year. I saw evidence of their success by the huge number of people using the park the day that we were there. There were many languages spoken, as we strolled down the meandering paths, indicating that people from other parts of the world were drawn here, as I was, to see the place and absorb the atmosphere that is unique to botanical gardens around the world.
It is hard for me to find the words to properly describe this place. Alas, if you have not been, this is one for your bucket list. If you have been, you get to live with the memories. Like the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Disneyland, and the Tower of London, these gardens are iconic in the way that the Sydney Opera House is (which, by the way, is the second most photographed structure in the world; the Eiffel Tower is #1).
The point is not that the Aussies have all the answers, but that someone or some group of people decided that setting this land aside for public use was a good idea. A long time ago! The Melbourne site was established in 1846, Sydney in 1811. This occurred at a time when the cities were in their embryonic stages of development. Hold that thought for a week and join me in this column next Saturday when I re-visit this issue. I will take you to a few more wonderful botanical gardens and I will share what I have learned from my visits.
And then I have a proposition for you that will knock your gardening gloves off.