Just about everyone who lives in Ottawa is familiar with the Central Experimental Farm. It’s hard to miss because it’s a 400-hectare working farm in the middle of the city just 3 km from the Parliament Buildings. Parents (and grandparents) have been going there for decades to pet the farm animals with their kids. And the Farm’s ornamental gardens are the backdrop in many of the region’s wedding photos.
Two of the Farm’s plant breeders brought worldwide acclaim to Canada with their horticultural accomplishments: Isabella Preston, who introduced the Preston Lilac series, and Félicitas Svejda, who developed many varieties of Explorer Roses.
When you consider the history of the Farm, you soon realize that it’s a mighty remarkable place. It was established by the federal government in 1886 to research crops that could live through the cold Canadian winter. Temperatures in Ottawa vary widely, from below -32ºC in winter to above 35ºC in summer. There are only 137 frost-free days on average and a late spring frost or an early fall one can be deadly. So increasing the winter-hardiness of plants has obviously been a priority.
The Farm can be credited with Canada becoming one of the world’s great grain-producing countries with the development of the first frost-resistant and early-maturing strain of wheat (Marquis). More than 100,000 field plots are planted annually on the Farm, which has led to improved varieties of oats, wheat, barley and soybeans.
The work of the Farm goes way beyond food crops. Can you believe that there is a hedge collection, now with 65 different plant species, which has been studied for information on winter survival, wind control and overall growth for over a century?
They have been testing tree and shrub species for hardiness since the first 200 were planted in the Arboretum in 1889. Today, there are 2,400 varieties.
The Central Experimental Farm never just concerned itself with hardiness. From the start its vision was to incorporate elements of design and pleasing vistas, in keeping with those found on British country estates in that period. So along with the wheat came broad sweeps of lawn, masses of trees and shrubs, curving paths, and splendid beds of flowers.
The Ornamental Gardens cover an area of approximately 3.2 hectares (8 acres) with the main features being the perennial collection, the rose garden, the annual garden, and the sunken garden. There are also, of course, Isabella Preston’s lilacs, which put Canada on the international ‘lilac map’. In fact, the lilac collection includes 125 different varieties. There are Lilac Walks in the Ornamental Gardens that include early, mid, late and very late bloomers. Plaques indicate the name of the shrub, the year it was introduced and by whom.
The Explorer series of hardy roses started by Dr. Felicitas Svejda’s were bred not only to withstand a harsh climate but also to have lots of flowers and to be resistant to insects and diseases. The roses were named after famous explorers, such as Martin Frobisher (1968), Jens Munk (1974), Henry Hudson (1976) and John Cabot (1978), to indicate how tough they were. This is said to be the world’s most successful breeding program for winter hardy roses. A list of the roses in each bed, including its characteristics and a photo, was compiled by Edythe Falconer and is a handy resource to print and take with you as you study the collection.
Peonies do well in this climate and there are 12 beds with 350 of them in the Ornamental Gardens, including those developed by hybridizer A.P. Saunders who was president of the American Peony Society and the son of the first director of the Experimental Farm.
There are also beds of daylilies and more than 100 types of irises.
When I visited the gardens in mid-September, the annual beds were still performing strongly. Many were “All-American Selection” (AAS) varieties—the best performers according to extensive trials by the oldest independent plant program in North America. The Farm’s entry in the AAS’s landscape contest was on display and made up of 1,295 plants. Many of the annuals in these gardens are over-the-top in colour and simply delightful.
The ornamental garden is, above all, a place for research and demonstration. There is a bed of plants that look decidedly tropical and I would imagine the plants must spend their winters in the greenhouse. The beds of perennial edibles and ornamental vegetables echo back to those I saw in Rosemary Verey’s garden at Barnsley House in England. The organic garden has been around for 20 years without the ‘assistance’ of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or fungicide.
One can only admire the Friends of the Central Experimental Farm, the group that gives more than 10,000 volunteer hours each year to the Farm. For more than 25 years these volunteers have “weeded, deadheaded, and pruned countless” garden beds.
They have restored and rebuilt the rose and peony gardens, created the Preston Heritage Lilac Garden, and added almost 1,000 trees to the Arboretum through donations. These are just some of their many achievements.
The Gardens are open, free of charge, to the public. There is plenty of pay parking behind the Ornamental Gardens.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy (Photos updated June 19, 2014 and August 1, 2014)
© Riding the buses 2014