Who Can Help Royal Botanical Gardens?

Well aware that writing anything more about what I consider to be major problems at Ontario’s Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) will probably bring me further wrath, I nevertheless believe it necessary to alert many folks who are apparently unaware of the “problems”.

Though the senior staff at the RBG have strongly denied there are problems in horticultural maintenance generally, telephoned and e-mailed comments that I have received indicate the situation may almost be a crisis. Perhaps it is time individuals banded together and chatted with RBG’s director, Roger Wheelock, as to what might be done to help the venerable institution gain back the high-ranking status it once had.

Now, I know the RBG has had financial crises before--going back about 40 years when I well remember director Leslie Laking making an unscheduled appearance on John Bradshaw’s Toronto radio programme to appeal for public support in the form of memberships and/or cash donations. And then about a decade ago there was another severe cash crunch when a severe reduction in government support lead to the firing of at least four key senior staffers. That continues even within the past 12 months.

As far as I know, staff losses had not previously lead to the lack of horticultural excellence that was the case at the RBG this past season.


The RBG rose garden as it looked toward the end of July, 2003! Photos by Laura Grant.

It began in June last year with several listeners phoning or writing me indicating they thought the rose garden left much to be desired, after I had promoted it in four broadcasts in June and early July. On July 26th, I wrote extensively about the problem, including quoting horticulturist, Larry Sherk. At my behest, he arrived at the RBG to find ten students weeding in the rose beds, and several dozen newly planted bushes of extremely poor quality. He said only about ten percent of the rose beds could be considered good. He wondered if perhaps they had not carried out any winter protection. In the past, retired horticulturist and rosarian, George Pagowski (now president of the Canadian Rose Society), had not only practiced state-of-the-art winter rose bush protection at the RBG, but introduced a whole new system to Canada that is now quite well practiced in Ontario and Quebec at least (particularly notably at le Jardin botanique de Montréal). That system, using polyfoam, was dropped two years after George retired.

Apparently the RBG horticulturist now in charge of Hendrie Park and the rose garden dropped the previous highly successful polyfoam system (I am told without even reading the RBG’s own report on the subject).

Larry Sherk also pointed out in the rose garden area that had been devoted to new cultivars, All-America winners, etc., at least half the bushes were missing!

Not to be content with just checking the Hendrie Park rose garden, Larry also made visits to the Laking Garden and the most famous Rock Garden. At the latter he noted: “along the ramp to the garden from the parking lot, all of the nice ground cover plants are being choked out (killed) by strangling dog vine (Cynanchum).” His visit to the ordinarily lovely Laking Garden (irises, peonies and an excellent collection of other herbaceous perennials) did not prove much better. There he noted serious gaps in beds, particularly on the mid level of that garden. He also said it was obvious that there was “nothing new in beds or containers.” By that he meant that there may have been displays of petunias in hanging baskets, but they were all old cultivars, with straggling growths that badly needed cutting back. He said too that he saw no plantings of any of the newer annuals such as the Wave petunias (that need much less care). How ironic that is!

At one garden he talked to a busy gardener about the obvious need for much improved maintenance and she said to him, “they give us more areas and less people.”

Following receipt of an e-mail message from me, RBG’s director, Roger Wheelock replied: “As to the general state of The Gardens, I am sure you have also been apprised of the weather as we have endured one of the longer, tougher winters on record, an end-less spring and now a summer that only appears in fits and starts and really won't warm up. We have finally, with the aid of students, managed to wrestle the weeds into submission and, with some luck with the weather (although the forecast continues coolish) the roses and summer annuals should come on.”

In response to that ridiculous statement, retired RBG curator Freek Vrugtman wrote to me: “Humbug, the summer has been very good for most plants (and for garden work), the countryside is green. Subsoil still quite dry; locally, conifers have put on little growth this season. The dry summer of 2002, followed by the cold winter took its toll on trees and shrubs, and not only those with borderline hardiness. All that is no excuse for poor maintenance (and low morale).”


The RBG’s Laking Garden in June and July 2003, as photographed by member, Jean Crankshaw.

On August 9th, I used a long letter from RBG member Jean Crankshaw (which was subsequently published in the Hamilton Spectator newspaper) that included this paragraph: “My next stop was the Laking Garden, where I noticed that the iris beds, with the exception of the dwarf irises, had been weeded since my last visit. I had visited the Laking Garden to photograph irises on June 2 and 7, a few days before the Canadian Iris Society and American Iris Society Siberian Species Iris Convention and the Canadian Peony Society Show. On both visits the beds of iris and peonies were full of weeds, including many thistles taller than the tall bearded iris. As I left on June 2, I enquired at the kiosk when the garden would be weeded and was told that the gardeners were busy in the other gardens but would be at the Laking Garden soon. Since I had seen little evidence of gardeners in the other gardens, I was very sceptical. Garden maintenance should have begun in the spring throughout the gardens and should be ongoing. To get back to my visit on July 31, the formerly magnificent Daylily Collection was being strangled by weeds; the daylilies were at their peak but bindweed and other weeds were overwhelming. Along the Hosta Walk, a new addition last year I believe, the weeds and grasses were also fast encroaching and the perennial beds were disappointing.”

Also that week, I had these two additional observations from listeners. From Ethel Freeman of the Canadian Rose Society, news of the World Federation of Rose Societies, whose 13th tri-annual congress she attended in Glasgow Scotland just two weeks earlier, was the awarding of a Garden of Excellence award to Le Jardin botanique de Montréal. Is it not ironic the Montreal garden, which still uses a system of winter protection for its roses that was developed and perfected at the RBG, wins an award in a year when the RBG’s garden is an absolute disaster because someone there decided to discontinue a great winter protection system!

And this one from another listener, who prefers not to have her name mentioned: “I'm writing to concur with Art Drysdale's description of the rose gardens, and the perennial gardens at the RBG this year. If I hear one more person blame the weather for what is clearly a lack of morale, I will scream.

“My garden, small and inconsequential as it is, was ‘hit’ as it were by a cold winter. I lost three rose bushes some delphiniums, and a heuchera (which I loved). Do you want to know what I did about it? I replaced them, with better varieties and my garden looks better than it ever has done. Furthermore, all the rose bushes in my garden have done better this year than they ever have - more blooms, no aphids, healthy shiny leaves. I don't know what everyone keeps complaining about. I lose plants every year for one reason or another, usually because I don't take necessary precautions to protect them, but each spring, I get out there and work hard at bringing things back to the way they should be, and each year, my little garden is a reflection of that fact that I love it, small though it may be and tended by me, and I don't know what I'm doing really.

“I came to the RBG for the first time this year, never having seen it before, and I couldn't wait to get home to my garden, which I thought was better. You really must evaluate who you have making the decisions at the top, perhaps fill some positions with some serious plant-lovers, you could select from the many volunteers you have working for you. Many people would give away their 80 year old peonies to come and volunteer at the RBG. The reason everyone loves the RBG is because it has usually been run by those plant lovers, when it becomes about tourism and dollars, the point of the thing becomes lost.”

There you have the actual thoughts of two visitors (one a member) to the RBG last summer, describing in their own words the gardens.