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COLUMN: The hidden garden – inspiration in unexpected places

The Botanical Garden at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas is home to a vast collection of cacti and succulents.
The Botanical Garden at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas is home to a vast collection of cacti and succulents.

We are big advocates for seeking out gardens in our travel. “Big Name Gardens” like Kew Gardens in London, UK, or the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York City are astonishing and worth the trip. We have found over the years that garden inspiration takes many forms and exists in almost every city. We have stumbled upon gardens that provide unexpected awe, and others that are quite modest. The delight in finding a unique and unexpected garden always makes a trip memorable.

Vegas

A few years ago, while attending a conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, Mark searched “botanical garden Las Vegas” online in desperation. He was ‘done’ with the ‘Strip’: the lights, the noise and of course the smoky air-conditioned air.

That was when he found the Botanical Garden at Springs Preserve (https://www.springspreserve.org/explore/botanical-garden.html). Who would imagine that the “City of Lights” is home to the largest collection of Mojave Desert cacti and succulent plants, dispersed over 110 acres of show gardens, hiking paths and naturalized feature gardens? Indeed, this oasis is a welcome and unexpected respite from the sprawling convention centers and blinking lights of the city – a discovery of unexpected awe.

Most visitors to Vegas don’t even know there is a botanical garden located there. Mark has returned four times now and he is impressed by the four outdoor amphitheatres, a butterfly conservatory, an excellent restaurant and gift shop, and many opportunities to learn about the flora and fauna of the southwest American desert.

Berlin

Last fall, Ben had a similarly uplifting experience when he stopped in Berlin for some Cold War history. Standing at a site along the former Berlin Wall, he happened upon “The Treehouse.” While East Germany was under communist rule, a scrap of land belonging to East Germany was left on the West side of the famous Berlin Wall.

Beginning in 1982, West German resident Osman Kalin started clearing the land on this sliver of real estate and established a vegetable garden. It is said that when Kalin was confronted by East German guards, he made peace by offering them vegetables from the allotment. When his sunflowers started reaching up to peer above the wall, he decided to build the tree house which still stands today.

Osman no longer maintains the garden at the base of his tree house, but neighbours carry on his tradition now that the wall is long gone. While this small garden plot is a far cry from the manicured botanical or estate gardens of Europe, it is a worthy stop for gardeners and historians alike to be inspired by the community-building power of a garden. This garden is more significant for what it stands for than any outstanding physical features.

Toronto

In Toronto, there are unexpected gardens in hidden corners that knit together their communities across the city. Thorogood Community Garden is one such place in Toronto’s east-end Riverside neighbourhood. Named for Mr. and Mrs. Thorogood, longtime residents of Allen Avenue (where the garden is located), the compact garden is tucked away on a former residential lot where community members have been maintaining and funding the garden through “grassroots” efforts since the 1980s.

Today, the garden is not just a community focal point for locals, but a gathering place for pollinators also. It features native and blooming plants intended to attract bees, both native and domesticated honey bees.

Getting ‘to the root’ of a place, and tapping into the history of it, is always a rewarding part of travel. Gardens of all shapes and sizes can tell interesting stories about the communities where they exist.

Digging (pun intended) for these stories enhances the experience of visiting a garden, wherever it may be located. While it isn’t always obvious – there is always more to discover, at home and abroad.

 

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds 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 markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s National Morning Show.

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