Three years ago I drove an hour and a half out of Toronto, to Brantford, to see a garden. I’d heard that a gardener with a big vision, Darren Heimbecker, was building his dream–a new public botanical garden–out of 20 acres of former cornfield.
The plants were still small, the structures still taking shape, and the amenities simple, but…wow. Walking around and seeing what this guy had accomplished in a few years, with the support of his wife and only one seasonal worker, was astonishing.
The tree collection had already become a field trip destination for students at area horticulture schools. Pebble mosaic pathways were being laid out in painstaking detail. Tall young trees were being tied to thin frames so that, as they grew, they would create canopies and rooms. A stone amphitheatre, based on one at the Palace of Versailles, was purpose-built to house a choreographed water fountain show.
It was inspiring but I didn’t tell many people about it at the time. It was still very clearly in the act of becoming and not everyone appreciates a work in the early stages of progress. “This place is really going to be something amazing in a few years” is what I did say to some.
It’s been three years so I went back this past weekend to take another look. And “Wow!” was on my lips again. But now I’m also ready to say that there is something awesome growing in that former cornfield, and I think any plant lover would enjoy a visit to Whistling Gardens.
Let me show you some of what I saw:
The garden has several “plant collections”, including the largest planting of peonies in Canada; over 1,000 different varieties! Peony bloom season was long over by the time I visited, but I’m definitely going to make a return trip one June. The plants are still getting fully established but I hear that bloom time is already spectacular.
This photo shows some of the peony beds on the day of my visit. Not much to see now, but I’m sure it’ll be thick with fluffy petals and camera-toting admirers come spring!
Plants in bloom on the day of my visit included daylilies, balloon flower and gaillardia.
The tree collection at Whistling Gardens is drawing international attention as it’s been recognized as the largest public display garden of conifers* in the world! This includes pine, spruce, larch, cedar, fir, juniper and redwood. Take a look at the variety of textures, colours, and shapes I saw on my walk through the Conifer Garden:
The tree collection at Whistling Gardens also includes quite a selection of deciduous* trees. On my walk I noticed at least three markedly different types of oak trees, including this variegated English oak (Quercus robur Argenteomarginata):
Walking among the trees at Whistling Gardens was inspiring, and made me wish I’d planted even more trees in my garden. It brought to mind an old Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
With that in mind, I did talk myself into buying yet another tree for our garden, a weeping pine, at Whistling Gardens’ garden centre on my way out. I didn’t want to have more regrets in twenty years!
There is a specific section of the property designated as the Conifer Garden, but they are everywhere in the garden. For example, this is a photo of the edge of the Rock Garden:
Hmm, looks like a lot of trees, doesn’t it? But the rock garden is also home to other plants that grow in drier environments, including opuntia (hardy cactus), liatris, yucca, and a beautiful patch of globe thistle:
The gardens attract local wildlife, including many wild birds, but those aren’t the only birds on the property; Whistling Gardens has it’s own aviary!
There were the expected pigeons, chickens, peacocks and doves:
Along with quite a collection of the unexpected, including a camera-shy chicken that literally looked like it was covered in fur instead of feathers, called a “Silkie”, and this remarkable Golden Pheasant:
I thoroughly enjoyed my return visit to Whistling Gardens. It has matured in all the best ways over the last three years. If you go, do keep in mind that it is an emerging botanical garden–it doesn’t yet have the resources for a team of gardeners to whisk every weed or stray seedling out of sight, the washrooms are (nice) porta potties, and some areas of the property are still on the wild side. At this point it’s a little like being allowed to peek behind the stage curtain to watch a great performer warming up–you see a little bit of the work of that goes into the grand performance.
I hope you enjoyed seeing some of the highlights of my visit. It’s a pretty special place and I think you’ll be hearing a lot more about it in years to come.
*Conifers are trees, usually evergreen, that bear cones. Deciduous trees shed their leaves every year and don’t have cones.