by Bernadette Vangool
This is part one of a two-part series on the Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo.
Nestled in the heart of Sutherland lies Saskatoon’s favourite picnic destination for young families, groups, weddings, seniors and singles. Saskatoon’s Forestry Farm Park and Zoo boasts an accredited zoo, fishing pond, miniature train, gardens, play areas and mature forest. It’s a great place to go jogging in the summer and skiing in the winter.
But the original purpose of this park just over 100 years ago was far different than today. Before settlement, the prairies were an expansive natural grassland. Whatever trees existed were found near water sources – creeks, rivers and lakes – while the plains themselves were covered by native grasses, sedges, flowers, drought tolerant shrubs and cacti. The majority of trees we see in the grainbelt today were planted by our pioneers and early settlers with the help of two nursery stations, one located in the south at Indian Head, and the other in the north, the Sutherland Forest Nursery Station – now the Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo.
Prairie settlers came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of them brought familiar plants and seeds, only to be disappointed when so many withered and died because of the harsh prairie conditions. It became apparent that to settle the West and to make the land more hospitable, trees were needed to both beautify and act as shelterbelts for homesteads, livestock and crops.
The Dominion of Canada created the Experimental Farm at Indian Head in the late 1800s to develop and propagate prairie-hardy trees. By 1906, demand for shelterbelt trees exceeded the two million seedlings that Experimental Farm was able to ship out. So in 1913, Sutherland was chosen as the site for a sister station. James McLean, the first Superintendent, oversaw the planting of shelterbelts and propagation fields and the building of the red brick house that was to become his family’s home. Besides propagating reliable tree species, plant breeders developed new shrubs and trees for shelterbelts and for the beautification of prairie farmsteads,
Les Kerr, the second and last Superintendent from 1942-1965, had a background in horticulture with a strong interest in wildlife. He concentrated his breeding efforts on hardy, ornamental and disease-free shelterbelt trees and shrubs that would provide birds with habitat as well as fruit and seeds. He worked with caragana, elder, plum and other fruit trees.
Along with producing trees and conducting research, one of the Station’s functions was to act as a demonstration landscape to show what could be grown in this climate. Ash Avenue, planted in 1914, is still visible if you walk past the Kinsmen playground on your way to the trout pond. There is also still a row of bur oak as well as a small apple orchard from those early days. Now mature, this is the landscape we enjoy today.
In keeping with this tradition, the Saskatchewan Perennial Society developed and maintains two gardens. The Meditation Garden, found on the former site of the foreman’s house, is an informal, restful garden featuring a sunny border, a dry streambed, a bog garden and a shady area under an old Manitoba maple tree.
A short stroll brings visitors to the adjoining Heritage Rose Garden. This one is a tribute to the early prairie plant breeders who collected, selected and hybridized hardy ornamental plants. It includes ‘Sutherland Golden’ elder, ‘Goldenlocks’ elder, and ‘Fuchsia Girl’, an apple seedling of ‘Royalty’, all developed by Les Kerr. The original lilac and caragana hedges enclose the two gardens.
Monthly during the summer, the Friends of the Forestry Farm House host free guided leisurely walking tours through the park, identifying tree species, discussing shelterbelt use and function, and talking about the history of the remaining buildings. Mark your calendars for our next (and last for the season) tour on August 27, starting at 2:00 pm.
Bernadette is an avid gardener and a board member of both the Saskatchewan Perennial Society and Friends of the Forestry Farm House (www.fffh.ca).