Halifax Public Gardens spring to life

Spring is here, the Halifax Public Gardens gates are open. (John Downie/Vacay.ca)

Spring is here as the Halifax Public Gardens open to visitors. (John Downie/Vacay.ca)

Story by Mary Alice Downie
Vacay.ca Senior Writer

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Winter. The garden sleeps behind wrought-iron railings, beneath snow-spangled trees — all that’s needed is a lamppost to make it a scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Passersby peer in wistfully at this locked Eden, where ducks swim on the unfrozen pond. But work continues in the greenhouses across the road, where the gardeners tend slips for the carpet beds, cherish the cacti, and semi-tropical plants, rescued from the cold.

Spring returns, clusters of bulbs sprout, promising daffodils and tulips. At last the great gates open and the fortunate citizens of Halifax can reclaim their Public Gardens. The open again for 2013 visits today, April 15.

Our first visit, several years ago, was particularly lively. The band struck up a rousing tune in the octagonal bandstand. Fountains splashed. Over the way, the clatter of teacups at the Mayor’s Garden Party was accompanied by a string quartet. Toddlers fed ducks at the pond, while pigeons perched on branches, waiting for unwary crumbs to fall. Flowers, urns and statues everywhere. It was easy to imagine nannies in starch-stiffened aprons wheeling high perambulators along the pathways among lavish flowerbeds. At any moment we expected to see Mary Poppins hovering overhead. Although it felt as if we had been transported to 19th-century England, we were in the centre of  Halifax, alongside Spring Garden Road in “one of the finest original formal Victorian gardens in North America.”

Spring Arrives in Halifax with Opening of Gardens

You enter this 16-acre urban paradise through ornamental gates imported from Glasgow (1889). There are weeping trees, classical bridges, a stone grotto and a delightful Water Fowl House. We didn’t see the “water sports on the big duck pond” enjoyed by Haligonians in the 1800s, or “hundreds of couples dancing on the lawns to the sedate tunes of Buchanan’s Orchestra,” (Thomas Raddall, Halifax, Warden of the North) but there was enough activity, floral and otherwise, to keep us haunting the place every day.

Even in September, roses edged along archways, there were the 34 “floating gardens” surrounding the bandstand, a hibiscus grove, the art class from a girls’ school, keenly sketching. There were rare trees, like that living fossil, the ginkgo (Maiden Hair Tree), a confused young pheasant that thought it was a duck, and a giant grey goose straight from a fairytale with orange beak and feet and dignified expression. As the days passed, we watched the gardens disappearing. First the cactus went, then others, day by day, just like the old Scots saying, “There it is, gone.”

Times have changed slightly since our first enchanted discovery of this not-so-secret garden. The Gardens were devastated in Hurricane Juan in 2003 but have more than recovered. Mother Goose has gone to that great duck pond in the sky, now a massive Toulouse Goose named Flora delights the nursery rhyme set. Because migratory patterns are changing, many of the wild fowl patrolling the Public Gardens won’t leave. The staff does not feed them and visitors are asked to refrain from doing so as well. The birds are encouraged to remain self-sufficient, to forage for themselves. They’re doing just fine. In fact, the  black ducks fly downtown to the harbour for dinner every night.

More About the Halifax Public Gardens

Beautiful hydrangas are in full bloom during the summer. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Beautiful hydrangeas are in full bloom during the summer in Halifax. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Location: The Public Gardens are a 10-minute walk from the Halifax Citadel at the corner of Spring Garden Road and South Park Street. (see map below)
Hours: The Public Gardens are open 8 am to dusk, from mid-April to mid-November. Admission is free.
Where to Sip: The Uncommon Grounds Café in the rustic post-and-beam  Horticultural Hall (1847), the oldest meeting hall in Canada (they kept vegetables in the cellar), serves ‘hand-paddled’ ice cream ($3.95 for one scoop), uber-cinnamon buns ($1.95) and sandwiches ($6 and up) for those without wings.
History: There was a private garden at this location as far back as 1753. In the 1830s, the members of the Nova Scotia Horticultural Society leased 5.5 acres along Spring Garden Road to demonstrate “the cultivation of choice fruit trees, vegetables, rare plants and flowers.” In 1866, an alderman created another garden on a piece of wasteland nearby, and a civic garden was opened in 1867. In 1874, the whole lot was assembled into one. The present layout is thanks to the superintendent, Richard Power, who had been gardener to the Duke of Devonshire in Ireland. Remarkably, Power’s descendants carried on the tradition of caring for the gardens until the 1960s.

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Now based in Kingston, Mary Alice Downie has lived in Canada, the US and Britain. In between publishing 28 books for children and adults, she has contributed travel stories to such magazines, newspapers and websites as Canadian Living, 55+, Good Times, Kingston Life, East of the City, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, Forever Young, TripAtlas, City Traveler. She enjoys ancient places, and historic sites, unique inns and B&Bs, gardens, food and wine, museums, folk festivals, music, theatre, architecture, literary travel and nature. She also spends far too much time watching cat videos.

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