Public Gardens for the People

Photo by Terence Radford. A Manidoo Ogtigan, on the shore of Lake Ontario in Kingston, is designed to tell the history of Alderville First Nation, who were relocated from the Kingston area to north of Cobourg in 1837.

This is the perfect time of year to get out and enjoy some of the great public gardens this province has to offer.

As vaccination rates continue to climb, we understand the urge to get out for a change of scenery mixed with people watching. Here is some of our favourite scenery to enjoy:

  • Niagara Parks Commission is a unique “Operational Enterprise Agency” founded in 1885 by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Today, it oversees more than 3,000 acres of public lands as well as the world-renowned Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, established in 1936. Highlights of the Niagara Parks include the Botanical Garden, Butterfly Conservatory and Floral Showhouse where a selection of miniatures has been re-built from the former Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village. We recently had Director of Niagara Parks Commission Steve Bamford on our podcast the Green File, where he gave us a Landscape Architect’s perspective on many of the Park’s greatest features.
  • In Southwestern Ontario, we recommend the Whistling Gardens in Wilsonville, ON. Whistling Gardens has over 4km of walking trails through 22 acres of manicured grounds with a collection of rare conifers including more than 2,000 different species and North America’s largest peony collection (1,200 different varieties best experienced in late May).
  • Further east, Manidoo Ogitigaan (Spirit Garden) is a new garden on the shore of Lake Ontario in Kingston designed to tell the history of Alderville First Nation, who were relocated from the Kingston area to north of Cobourg in 1837. Described as a “homecoming” for Alderville First Nation after a brutal history with United Empire Loyalist settlers, it is intended to acknowledge the harms of colonization and attempted cultural assimilation on Indigenous communities. A worthwhile stop to pause and reflect.

Note: The City of Toronto recently approved $2 million to construct a Spirit Garden on Nathan Phillips Square, and we hope to see more of these important gardens in public spaces across the country.

  • The City of Ottawa takes public gardens very seriously. Many of the city’s gardens are managed by the National Capital Commission and organized along the Garden Promenade – a self-guided tour of more than 75 public gardens. Among the highlights are the rooftop garden at the Canadian War Museum, which is one of the largest of its kind in the world, and the Landscapes of Canada Garden at the Canadian Museum of Nature, which recreates Canada’s diverse landscapes on a single garden setting.  For a formal landscape experience, make some time for the Rideau Hall Garden which has a uniquely British feel.
  • Closer to home, the Royal Botanical Garden (RBG) is accessible from Toronto by GO train to Aldershot station with a bit of a walk.  We recommend that you bring your bike, which will save time and give you greater opportunity to explore this great corner of the Niagara Escarpment. RBG is without a doubt a crown jewel for public gardens in Canada. We recently had the new Director of RBG Nancy Rowland on Green File ( where she told us her favourite place for reflection is the little-known Princess Point in Cootes Paradise.  Checkout the recently revitalized Rock Garden and Rose Garden, which both underwent millions of dollars in renovations since 2018 to set them at the gold standard for modern garden design.
  • Our Hometown Hero, the Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG) is one of our favourites. TBG arguably offers the best value on this list: free admission for a world class garden, right in our own backyard (disclosure: Ben is on the board at TBG). Take time to notice the entrance garden designed by Dutchman Piet Oudolf, father of the New Perennial design movement.

As we step timidly back into the world, why not step into one of the great public gardens in our own backyard and take in the scenery.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.