Canadian Horticultural Personalities
Howard Burlingham Dunington Grubb


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Howard Grubb at his birthday party at the Sheridan Nurseries’ original (home) farm in the summer of 1964. That’s him holding his straw hat Watercolour sketch of landscape that was installed at Government House, Chorley Park, of which now only one bridge over a small creek remains.

Howard Burlingham Grubb was born in York, England, April 30, 1881. Said to be restless when he was young, it was decided to send him to the Americas to study in his field of interest--landscape architecture. And so it was that in the early 1900s, Howard Grubb came to Cornell University at Ithaca, New York. Here, the enterprising young Englishman felt there was really more opportunity in his vocation back home, than in the U.S.A. In late 1907, while still at Cornell, he wrote to the late Thomas H. Mawson, one of England’s best-known landscape architects. He requested employment in Mr. Mawson’s London office, but that eminent authority advised Mr. Grubb to stay in the U.S.A. where advancement seemed more assured. Paying little heed to the advice, just three months later, after Mr. Grubb’s graduation from Cornell in 1908, the following exchange took place in Mr. Mawson’s private office:

“My name is Grubb.”

“Well, what can I do for you?”

“I have come to work for you.”

“I am sorry to disappoint you, but it is quite impossible. As you will see for yourself, every seat in the office is occupied.”

“Well sir, I have traveled all the way from America for the purpose of working for you; so you must find me a seat somewhere.”

“But my dear fellow, I simply cannot do it.”

“Listen to me, sir. I worked my way back from America on a cattle boat, so you simply must take me on.”

In his autobiography The Life and Work of an English Landscape Architect, Thomas H. Mawson reflected on his initial meeting of Howard Grubb in his private office. To quote Mr. Mawson, “He was an exceptionally tall, upstanding young fellow, and proportionate in build.” Suffice it to say that within two years Mr. Grubb was in charge of Mr. Mawson’s London office! Late in 1910, Mr. Mawson and Mr. Grubb attended a lecture on Garden Design given by a “rising lady landscape architect.” Afterwards Mr. Mawson introduced the lecturer, Miss Alfreda Dunington, to Mr. Grubb, and it was just a short three months later that their engagement was announced.

For some time Howard Grubb was in charge of his employer’s work on the Palace of Peace at The Hague--a commission to which Mr. Mawson had been assigned following an international competition. If you visit Holland you shouldn’t miss this building, even today.

It was in 1911 that Mr. And Mrs. Dunington-Grubb emigrated to Canada, and in May opened an office in Toronto as Landscape Architects. Soon after the establishment of the office, the almost total lack of supply of ornamental plants became apparent. This led to several attempts at establishing a plant nursery, two of which failed. Then in early 1914 there was a purchase of 42 hectares (100 acres) of land at what was then Sheridan (now part of Oakville), Ontario, and this was the beginning of the successful nursery firm, Sheridan Nurseries Ltd., of which Mr. Grubb was founder, and President until his death on February 26, 1965.

Also soon after their arrival in Canada, they protested the rumoured hiring of a non-resident landscape designer (thought to be Charles W. Leavitt Jr. of New York City) for the landscaping of the new Government House (to be the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor) at Chorley Park in Toronto’s Rosedale. The protesting worked--H.B. & L.A. were hired to design the gardens for the new Government House! By 1915, Howard Grubb had hired artists A.S. Carter and W.E. Welch (perhaps through his active membership in Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, where, in the 60s, I joined him frequently) to do at least two presentation watercolours (one of which is shown here) that still today hang in the head office of Sheridan Nurseries, now in Georgetown. Thank you to Sheridan for the photo of the sketch.

At a conference on garden planning about 15 years later, Mr. Grubb was quoted as saying: “I well remember an interview on a very hot August afternoon during progress of the work on gardens for the palatial Government House for the Province of Ontario. The Minister of Public Works had some excuse for being brusque. After inspecting stonemasons setting balustrade, cut-stone fountains, pavements, and steps for the terraces, he controlled himself sufficiently to ask merely if these things were necessary. The only possible answer was to admit quite frankly that they were all wholly unnecessary, that we were dealing unfortunately, not in necessities, but in luxuries, and that the only really necessary work involved was a plank walk to the front door so that people could get in and out of the building without stepping in the mud. Garden design in a country devoid of gardens must necessarily be a gradual evolution.” And so it has been.

Prominent among Mr. Grubb’s designs were the private gardens of F.F. Dalley, Ancaster; Rupert Bain, Don Mills; and Shirley Cragg, York Mills. Some of his company’s most famous endeavours were in the realm of public gardens. He was landscape architect for Gage Park and McMaster University Entrance Park including the sunken garden, all in Hamilton, Ontario. The now world-famous Oakes Garden Theatre and Rainbow Bridge gardens at Niagara are also outstanding examples of his artistry. His final undertaking was the landscaping of the University Avenue central mall in downtown Toronto--a project involving an expenditure of $500,000, incorporating large and small fountains, an abundance of container plantings, an infinite variety of exposed aggregate stone, and huge specimens of “smaller ornamental trees”, including globe elms (Ulmus carpinifolia umbraculifera). Incidentally, some of the latter are still there and thriving.

Howard Dunington-Grubb was an active member of numerous clubs and was well known and welcomed with respect wherever he went. He often enjoyed lunch at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, and at least once a month would be seen at the Toronto Board of Trade where he was a member of the largest committee--that of Advisory Engineering and Planning. Also a member of the University Club in Toronto, Howard Grubb was an active member of the Toronto Skating Club, now the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. Only a few years before he died was he forced to give up this activity. He was also an ardent golfer, and long-time member of the Toronto Golf Club (in Mississauga), one of the oldest and finest clubs in the Toronto area, where he drove a straight ball until 1963!

With all this activity he found time to lecture on landscape design at the University of Toronto for over a quarter of a century. In the mid 50s he was honored by the Ontario Association of Architects, receiving their Allied Arts Medal. In addition, he was made an honorary member of both the Canadian and Ontario Nursery Trades Associations (the first person to be so named). In August 1963 the International Shade Tree Conference (now the International Society of Arboriculture), while in convention in Toronto, bestowed on him their honorary membership--the first such to a Canadian.

The final recognition of a long, dedicated career came just a month before he died in January 1965. Writing about him in the March 1965 issue of Canadian Nurseryman magazine, I said, “Well do I remember the Ontario Landscape Contractors Convention this year at The Inn On The Park. Specifically in mind is the President’s reception just prior to the annual banquet. All but lost in a vast sea of humanity, laughing, telling jokes and generally enjoying themselves, sat a happy and modest gentleman, chatting with Mrs. Harry VanDyk, wife of the Association’s incoming President. When I touched him on the shoulder and said, “What a crowd, eh?” Howard Dunington-Grubb replied, ‘Yes, yes, wonderful Par-r-ty, grand!’

“Mr. Grubb enjoyed such get-togethers--the more people there were, and the livelier things were, the more he enjoyed it all. Even in the months just prior to his passing, Mr. Grubb attended as many as three and four gatherings (or as he used to prefer--‘parties’) each week. At each he would sit and talk with his many respected friends and watch the activities going on all around. He just liked to be where there was plenty of activity.”

I am proud to say that I knew him well--very well. There are few people around now in the 2000s who knew him at all, let alone able to say that they chatted with him, and drank good wine with him on a regular basis. The reason for this is that two years before his death, he had a couple of car accidents in succession and correctly decided he should stop driving, even though he was easily able to pass his annual drivers test. It was agreed he would take taxis to his parties, but he didn’t want to do that to get to work each day. (He was frugal too!) He knew that I was the only other person in the Sheridan Nurseries head office who lived in the east end (everybody else lived much closer to the office which was on the border line between Toronto and Mississauga). He asked me if I would consider driving him to the office in the morning, and home at night on days when I had a regular schedule; i.e. no meetings or other events to attend. He said he would not be surprised nor upset if I turned him down, and that if I agreed, he’d be only too pleased to take a taxi any day when my schedule, for whatever reason, prevented me from driving him.

That was the beginning of a nearly two years of close friendship. For example, Friday nights it had been his custom to stop at Toronto’s main LCBO (liquor) store to choose some fine wines for the weekend. He asked me if I minded doing this, and I of course, concurred. That lead him, on the second Friday night, to invite me to his home where we sampled the various wines, and enjoyed snacks prepared for each occasion by Beatrice, his housekeeper.

My duties, in addition to listening to the various problems that plagued the Sheridan “family” (about which more in a distant similar article) in those turbulent years even ended up including purchasing a new car for Beatrice so she could do the house shopping.

A few months before his death I decided it was my time to buy the car of my dreams, and went shopping at Mercedes Benz of Canada for a new sports car--a 230SL. I saw what I liked and ordered one, but they offered to loan me their demonstrator for a day. So, the next morning on the way to work Grubby and I (his close friends always called him Grubby, even to his face) dropped in at Mercedes Benz right in the centre of Toronto, near his home. There we switched cars, and I can still hear him saying to me how much he “loved thaaat cah.” The reason was that as a two-seater sports car very low to the road, it was much easier for him to get in, and he had much less difficultly lifting his long legs in than he did with traditional sedans, or even coupes.

Unfortunately, my new car didn’t arrive from Germany until a month after he passed away. I do remember him asking me on more than one occasion when was my new car coming!

A friend fondly remembered, Howard Burlingham Dunington Grubb.