Nearly every Canadian province maintains one or more public gardens of significant repute, but only one–the Historic Gardens in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia–invites the exploration of 400 years of agricultural history that began with the arrival of explorerSamuel de Champlain and 79 French settlers in 1604.
This hardy band of pioneers was recruited by Pierre Dugua de Mons who, in 1603, was directed by Henry IV of France to begin colonization of Acadia, a territory known today as the Maritime provinces and part of the State of Maine.
De Mons arrived in May 1604 with two supply ships led by Champlain. By the end of June, the expedition had explored the Bay of Fundy and Minas Basin. The settlers wintered on an island at the mouth of the St. Croix River. The river, which rises in the Chiputneticook Lakes and flows southeast to Passamaquoddy Bay, forms part of the border between New Brunswick and Maine.
Half of the settlers died of disease and or starvation that first winter. The survivors worked their way back to a previous site that was deemed more suitable for a permanent location. The following spring, the settlers began to cultivate staple crops that could be used for food, clothing and rope. Champlain spent some time documenting the seeding of wheat, barley, oats, rye, hemp, peas, cabbage, radish and flax.
The rich marshland bordering the Bay of Fundy and the mild maritime climate rewarded these efforts. Champlain named the location Port Royal or Royal Port and the little place flourished. Agricultural records describe the importation of horses, cattle, iron plows and seeds from France in 1610 when the first apple trees were planted. In 1634, d’Aulnay de Charnisay established a seminary just south of Port Royal for the purpose of teaching agriculture. Another account notes construction of dikes to “reclaim great meadows which the tide overflowed and which de Charnisay caused to be made dry.”
In spite of their hard work and perseverance, the French were fated to lose their fragile toe in the New World. Port Royal and its fort were captured by the British in 1710 and renamed Annapolis Royal in honour of reigning sovereign Queen Anne. It is also interesting to note that the fort was garrisoned until 1854 and that the settlement was the capital of Nova Scotia until the founding of Halifax in 1749. In 1755, the Acadian settlers were expelled from Nova Scotia and the area was resettled by Loyalists and New Englanders.
Two hundred and twenty-four years later–in 1979–residents of Annapolis Royal decided to reclaim their agricultural past by building a theme garden on a portion of land originally protected by de Charnisay’s dikes. It was an undertaking of no small proportions for a small town of some 600 souls.
Historic Gardens Manager Trish Fry says the project grew out of a mid-1970s citizen-based effort to revitalize the town by building on its tri-centennial roots. Designs for a garden began to take shape in 1979 with the help of the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Marketing, Agriculture Canada, the Nova Scotia Museum and members of a gardens committee. Work on the 10-acre site began in 1980, and construction funds of approximately $1.2 million were provided under a federal/provincial agreement.
By the spring of 1981, new dikes were being built and the Historic Gardens opened to the public. A trickle of visitors gradually turned into a torrent. During the early 1990s, the place was averaging 26,000 visitors per season. This increase has been steady and just last summer approximately 40,000 people paid a visit. A nominal gate fee of $5 per person is generating more than one-half of the annual budget of $225,000, and the season runs from mid-May to October. It is open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to dusk.
The project’s success is also linked to the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens Society, a non-profit organization that bought the property from the town in 1987 for roughly $200,000. The society’s mandate involves maintaining the gardens in perpetuity. Towards this end, it acquired decreasing amounts of annual provincial funding and collected other monies through auctions, building rental income and many other sources. The society has paid off its debt to the town. It has also established an endowment fund to assist with financing when government contributions are no longer available. It is expected that by 2004, the project will be financially independent.
Pat Pelham is the gardens’ horticulturalist. He has been with the project from day one, and his feeling for old shapes and styles has helped establish the historical feel of the grounds. “Many gardens are botanical or research gardens that exhibit types of plants. Our theme here is ‘historical ornamental.’ I admire the look of old European gardens. They have an added dimension of time. We planted a Cedar of Lebanon tree last year that won’t reach its prime for 150 years. But I put it in with the hope that people will appreciate it in the future. Gardens have a life of their own. The original design layout has accommodated the evolution of the gardens quite well, but some beds are new additions while other areas, like the rose and rock gardens, have slowly become much more extensive.”
A walk-through of the gardens usually begins near the 90-foot by 45-foot pond at the entrance. Pelham points out silver pear, tall blue spikes of iris as well as spirea, flowering cherry, Chinese catalpa and the Empress tree that is on the edge of its hardiness zone. “We aren’t sure if it will develop into a bush or a tree. It looks like catalpa, but has big spikes of purple flowers.”
There are five feature garden areas to the east. The first is the Governor’s Garden. Pelham explains that “this colonial period area offers a glimpse of gardening in the 1700s as demonstrated by the Golden Russet, Seek No Further and Nonpareil apple trees rising above neatly trimmed squares of yew and boxwood hedges that also enclose day lilies, rudbeckias, asters and single bloom hollyhocks.”
A turn in the path brings the visitor to the spectacular 19th century Victorian Garden. This is a 100-foot by 120-foot area divided into quarters that surround a yew, a dark-leaved coniferous tree that has been clipped into a round shape. Colours run riot. “We plant mostly period annuals here, so it changes from year to year,” says Pelham. “This spring we put in snapdragons, salpiglossis, four o’clocks, castor beans, geraniums, amaranthus, alyssum and tall red canna lilies.”
Within a few steps is the Knot Garden. Pelham explains how lavender was arranged to form an interlacing pattern of hedge work and then sheared to form the visually intricate and wonderfully fragrant knot.
A little further along–past a small fountain that is made out of dark volcanic rock known as basalt–the Perennial Garden is a brilliant mass of blooms. Most gardening enthusiasts know that perennials are plants that come up every year. On display are 131 varieties, including China Blue, blue poppies, snake root, anemone, thistle, Joe Pye weed, plume poppies, salvia, feverfew, malva, delphinium, false goat’s beard and houndstooth.
The gravel path dips along the northeast boundary where a steep hill is being developed into a rock garden. There are some fine examples of rose daphne. This small evergreen with rose-pink flowers is difficult to cultivate. Here too are blue gentian and spiderwort. The latter bears natural Geiger counters in its tiny blue blossoms that turn pink when exposed to radiation. Next to these are dwarf rhododendrons and the blue-green leaves of the Euphorbia myrsinoides or spurge.
Just past the rock garden are three pools connected by two waterfalls and a graceful footbridge. White water lilies toss their heads over passing ripples while 103 varieties of day lilies mime their mirrored partners in a profusion of white, yellow and gold, all vying with the purple-blue blooms of pickerel weed.
People who like rhododendrons usually go a little crazy just after they cross the footbridge. There are 74 varieties of this popular ornamental on display here in nearly every colour of the rainbow…even some purples that shade into blue. Pelham says the best time to see them is at their peak bloom, normally from mid-June to the end of June.
To the west and up the rise, are 26 varieties of smooth, colourful grasses that are positioned to their best advantage against a prickly background of conifers that include Korean and silver fir, blue spruce and bristle cone pine trees. The north side of the gardens overlooks 17th century and modern dike land as well as the shores of the Annapolis Basin. Pelham talks about the climatic advantages of their location. “The twice daily tides of the Bay of Fundy and the Annapolis and Allain’s rivers are warming. We also have a south facing slope, enjoy the advantages of being sheltered by two mountains, and the upland portion of the gardens shelters the lower side. We select zone hardy plants and most of them do OK.”
During the walk, Pelham calls attention to some of the most unusual acquisitions in the gardens. He points out a Dove tree that is indigenous to China. It was grown from a cutting taken from its parent at Harvard University. He also shows me an Atlas Cedar, a famous European ornamental that is indigenous to the Atlas Mountains in Algeria. This particular specimen came from a nursery in Oregon. Two large arbours are also considered outstanding features, one is bedecked with showers of yellow laburnum. The other a mass of fragrant mauve wisteria.
Further along there is a footbridge nestled in a feathery greenish-brown stand of towering Norfolk reed also known as elephant grass that is well known for its thatching properties. Local historians believe this particular stand of reed to be an original Acadian planting more than 350 years old. Portions were most recently cut to thatch a nearby reproduction of an Acadian period cottage.
Winding back up the hill and turning toward the northwest corner, paths converge upon the pride and joy of the whole kit and caboodle…slightly more than 2,000 rose bushes and a rose maze. Pelham is more than happy to introduce a few favourites, including the wingthorn rose with its sometimes four petals as opposed to five. He also points out the apothecary rose that some horticulturalists believe was originally cultivated by the Romans and preserved throughout Europe in medieval monasteries.
The rose maze is a twisting, thorny, aromatic, convolution of shrub roses more than six feet high. There are more humming birds than you can shake a stick at. In all, the rose garden features about 233 varieties.
Last in the circuit is the Innovative Garden that is located adjacent to the main gardens’ house. This area is used to demonstrate new trends in agriculture as well as innovations in plant materials and gardening techniques. Here are Easy Mac apples, sour cherry, tobacco, cotton, beans, kiwi vines and edible ferns.
A few last steps brings visitors back to the main gate where some head for the gift shop and others for outdoor patio tables at the gardens’ restaurant. Most have been more than impressed with what they have seen. Their appreciative comments are well deserved accolades for seven experienced seasonal gardeners, most of whom have worked here for the past 19 years.
Indeed, the efforts of everyone involved with the project have been well rewarded. The Historic Gardens boasts a three-out-of-four-star rating and its financial independence is just around the bend. Better yet, they’ve reclaimed a priceless piece of Canadian history that will only improve with each passing year.