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What Happened To The World Famous Fragrant Garden For The Blind At Cnib Toronto Headquarters
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale

email: art@artdrysdale.com

Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at http://www.artdrysdale.com


July 5, 2015

Lois Wilson rides as the Queen of the Flowers parade circa 1972

 


 



 

My late good friend Lois Wilson, ninth president of the Garden Club of Toronto (1965-67), great humanist and facilitator, and garden writer (Chatelaine’s Garden Book [1970], Flowers for Your Church [1968], Miniature Flower Arrangements and Plantings [1963]) was the chairman of the original planning committee for the garden back in 1954 (she joined the Garden Club in its inaugural year, 1947). The landscape architect for the garden was J. Austin Floyd and the project was completed at a cost of $21,000 and opened on September 6 in 1956. The Garden Club (spurred by Lois, to say the least!) raised the money, some coming from private foundations.

(By the way, we made Lois Wilson an honorary member of the Garden Writers Association back in 1977.)

The Fragrant Garden was one-acre in size and was conceived to provide scent, tactile and sound sensations to blind and visually impaired people, both those who then lived in the residences at CNIB headquarters, and those who came to the headquarters building for treatments, information and consultations. There were 17 flowerbeds in total, and six of these were raised so visitors might easily note the scented plants. The trees and shrubs were originally chosen for the rustling their leaves would make in even a light wind, their ability to attract birds, and of course, fragrant flowers. The garden, right from the beginning had a number of unique features. For example, one oak tree was grown from an acorn that came from Windsor Great Park in England, and was donated to the garden by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

The garden, of course, had rose beds, and was ahead of its time in that a pool and fountain were included. The late J. Austin Floyd was much ahead of his time in the use of pools and fountains even in smaller gardens. His garden in the interior courtyard at Toronto’s Sheraton Centre Hotel is another example of this.

There were over 5,000 plants in the Fragrant Garden and many bulbs and annuals were planted each year. The pre-dominant colour for flowers in the garden is yellow, since it is considered the most visible of colours. Yellow-coloured flowers are located along walkways and outlining small seating areas.

Right from it’s opening the garden has been operated by the CNIB, with its own budget. Peter Hoogeveen, who had great dedication to the garden, maintained it for years. I remember Lois Wilson citing his wonderful commitment to the garden. When Peter retired his son Peter Jr. took over the job.

The CNIB’s garden was quite well known internationally. When I was in Budapest, Hungary in 1974, following the international garden show (IGA) in Vienna, Austria that year, the Budapest parks director showed me various facilities including their garden for the blind. He said his designers had contacted “people in your city of Toronto because we were told the best such garden is there.” And a similar thing happened when I was in New Zealand in 1983.

In fact it was in 1983 that Lois told me that she thought the Fragrant Garden needed rejuvenation, and that she would work at getting the Garden Club to make it happen. That she did.

In 1984 two Garden Club members did a garden survey: Dorothy Ross (a superb flower arranger I remember well) and Margaret Dove (who wrote about gardening occasionally in the then Toronto Telegram) led to a decision to revitalize the garden in 1985. The restoration costs were $85,000, again raised through Garden Club projects (such as their annual flower show) and donations from private foundations.

In 1994 (I believe) a lovely Ivory Silk Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’) was planted, accompanied by an appropriate plaque, in Lois Wilson’s memory, within the Fragrant Garden--absolutely a fitting place for such a tribute.

And so it was with considerable sadness in September 2002 that I learned the garden would likely be destroyed since the CNIB was eliminating the residences for the blind at the site, and that new construction would follow.

My talk with Catherine Herman, CNIB property manager, brought to light the following facts about the fate of the garden. Beginning in March or April 2003, the old administration building, fronting on Bayview Avenue, would be demolished to make way for a new building. That would mean the rose garden would disappear. I understood that Garden Club members would attempt to remove and hold some of the bushes over for future use.

Then in late summer 2004, the rest of the garden would disappear as the balance of the land is developed into condos and upscale townhouses. There is apparently a deal between the CNIB and the developer. Obviously, upscale townhouses on the rear ravine property at this very central site will be quite saleable! The disappearance of such a far-ahead-of-its-time and loved project was indeed sad; but there was the possibility a new, albeit smaller garden would be designed and built.

Though some were saying the re-development of the garden area might begin as early as July 2004, I am told that the CNIB had a budget for the present garden (minus the rose section) in 2003, including the purchase of bulbs and annual flowers.

The latest word I had back then from Vertechs Design Inc. (Mary Jane Lovering, principal) the landscape architectural firm that has been retained by the CNIB to design a new garden, is that the new garden will be included in the plans for the new building, closer to Bayview Avenue. At that time Vertechs were about to receive the initial site plan drawings from Mary Jane Finlayson (Stirling Finlayson Architects) CNIB architects for the project. From the rumblings I heard, the garden was to be much smaller. At least (hopefully) there will continue to be a garden. If I meet Lois Wilson in any after-life, I don’t want to have to report that her favourite project was just abandoned!

Hopefully next week in the second part of this report, I’ll be able to bring you right up to date on the new CNIB garden!

   

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