Gardening Guru: Garden tourism

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If it is true that there are really only two kinds of people in this world — those who love to garden and those who love to just look at gardens — then the introduction of the term ‘garden tourism’ into our lexicon is long over due. The truth is more than 27 million people who visited Canada from outside of the country last year visited a public garden. That is a whack of ooohhs and aaahhs if you ask me. Gardens are listed as one of the Top 10 cultural activities undertaken by pleasure travelers in Canada, according to Travel Activity and Motivation Study. 

My interest here is to encourage you to consider the possibilities of visiting the great gardens in your own neighbourhood, province or country, depending on how ambitious you feel about travel. 


Close to home

Michel Gauthier, a clever guy with a history in the festival and garden tourism business, came up with the idea of the ‘Canadian Garden Route’ a few years ago and it seems to be a hit with train travelers. The idea is to visit up to 19 public gardens along the Via Rail Garden Route, choosing from the list as you would a menu at a restaurant. 

Of these gardens, I have personally visited 11 of the 19 in recent years and can vouch for all of them as legitimate public attractions with broad appeal for casual gardeners that are ‘only looking’ and the more active variety that enjoy getting their knees dirty.

I cannot resist the temptation to list my favourites.


Butchart Gardens

Butchart Gardens in British Columbia is no less than magnificent. I first visited this garden while driving across the country with my brother Peter when I was 15 years old (1971).  Even at that tender age when I had about as much ‘attitude’ as any mid-teen, I was blown away with the scope, colour, attention to detail and the general activity at this place. I have returned eight times since and I am always impressed not by how much it has changed but by how well it has been maintained. This indeed is the ‘Grand Daddy’ of Canadian Show Gardens and it has aged very well indeed.

Once you see Butchart for yourself you will not have to wonder why the Disney organization uses Butchart Gardens as its model for the entrance into the Canada pavilion at Epcot in Florida. Keep in mind, while touring this treasure, that the place was an open pit gravel mine at the time that Mrs. Butchart had the inspiration to convert it into a garden. The result is nothing less than a partnership between man and nature that reaches over the top. Make that woman and nature. (


Niagara Parks School of Horticulture

I am very familiar with this fabulous garden as I have made a habit of visiting it almost every year since I joined my dad in the nursery business in 1978.  It provides double duty as both a teaching facility for the Niagara School of Horticulture and a public ‘show’ garden. To find anything in its category you would have to travel to Wisley or Kew gardens in England. If you enjoy seeing the latest in garden design, new annual introductions and an enthusiastic use of perennials and roses, add this to your summer travel plans. (


Central Experimental Farm

Gone are the glory days when this facility represented the leading edge of horticultural research. But much of the genetic material that was used to develop the family of Preston lilacs, the Explorer and Parkwood Rose series’ and a wide variety of perennials, flowering shrubs, crabapples and other winter hardy plants are there for you to see in all of their mature glory. And that is the key — many of the plants that you will find in Canadian retailers this spring originated in federally sponsored programs and almost, without exception, the plants that found their way to market were planted at the Central Experimental Farm. Take a camera and notebook to get the most of your visit. And marvel, as I do, at the size and colour of 25-50 year old specimens. 

Oddly enough the Experimental Farm is located within the City of Ottawa, making it very accessible by public transit, taxi or car.

There is a movement under way to revive the farm as a research facility. For details, visit:


Halifax Public Gardens

Without a doubt this is the best example of a Victorian style public garden anywhere on the continent. Not that I have visited every public garden in North America, but the people that run the place tell me that, so it must be true. If you appreciate public space that is altogether livable from any point of view, you will appreciate this oasis in the middle of the busy City of Halifax. Plan to go this spring, summer or early fall as they lock the gates for the winter period. Go figure.

They have replaced the original gazebo with a new one that is in keeping with the style and period of the gardens. Entrance is free.The quiet time that you spend there is, as they say, priceless.  (


Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens

Anyone that enjoys experiencing the history of Canada will want to put this on their ‘must see’ list. For about one century before the British saw fit to settle in North America in a serious way, the French settled here and made this place a permanent home. The garden demonstrates how life was lived by the original settlers in the 1600s. The crafts and food of the times are featured with guided tours available in season. One visit and tour of this garden will change your view of Canadian history forever.  (


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Mark Cullen is Canada’s best-known gardening broadcaster and writer. He is the spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at and watch him Wednesday mornings on Canada AM. His column, which focuses on our growing zone, appears in the Hants Journal every two weeks.


Organizations: Disney organization, Niagara Parks School, Niagara School of Horticulture Canada AM Hants Journal

Geographic location: Butchart Gardens, Canada, British Columbia Canadian Show Gardens Florida North America Wisley England Ottawa Halifax Annapolis Royal

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