The Kind and Thoughtful Leslie Laking Has Passed From Among Us
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


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

May 22, 2011

Three photos of Dr. Leslie Laking; the latter with garden writer/author Marjorie Harris.

Leslie Laking died on April 16, at age 95. He was one of a kind in the horticultural/botanical field—a kind man always with encouraging words.

I have memories of him from the mid-1950s right up to mid-2000s. The first was in or around 1956, when I was president of the East York Junior Horticultural Society, and Leslie was the speaker at the main (senior) Society meeting, held in R.H. McGregor Public School. He had been told about my interest in pursuing a career in gardening and horticulture by Mrs. Dorothy Stoneburgh the Society’s director in charge of the Junior Society.

He came to me and offered advice on whether I should choose the University of Guelph (his alma mater) or The Niagara Parks Commission School of Gardening (as it was then called) which was my and Mrs. Stoneburgh’s preference then. While he didn’t push the University too strongly, he definitely had a leaning for it. At the end of the conversation, he said to me, “study them both well, and make your own decision.”

The next time I encountered him was while I was enrolled at The Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture (as it had become then) and I was visiting the Royal Botanical Gardens--at an indoor event. He asked me how it was going, and was I happy at the NPC. I replied that I was most pleased with my choice, and that I always enjoyed my visits to the RBG, particularly any involvement by Ray Halward (an NPC grad) who was then the RBG propagator.

Still later, in the mid and late 60s I would encounter him irregularly at CFRB where he would be a guest on John Bradshaw’s programme (as was I), or in to record his short ‘RBG Moments’ that also ran on CFRB. Later in the 70s, Leslie appeared on John’s programme in order to appeal for listeners to support the RBG which even at that time was suffering from a shortage of funds. It was also at this time that another good friend of mine, Lois (Mrs. J.R.M.) Wilson enlisted me to help with gathering a list of supporters in order to gain Leslie an Honorary Doctorate from the University Guelph. She was successful!

Also in the 70s, I found myself in meetings with Leslie regarding the Dunington Grubb Foundation’s wish to donate some money to the RBG in order to enable them to begin a collection of Canadian horticulture memorabilia, including historic nursery and seed catalogues. Actually, it was Lois Wilson and I who had to convince Leslie that this was a good idea, and to accept the $100,000+ for the project. [The wording in the recent Globe & Mail’s obituary is not really accurate on this subject!]

[Referring again to the Globe & Mail’s obituary, the paragraph about the ‘Therapy through Horticulture’ programme is also not quite correct. It was the late Ray Halward, the RBG’s director of the Arboretum and Propagator, who spearheaded the therapy project, and was the major fundraiser for the R/V which he (Ray) drove all around the province of Ontario—hospital to hospital. It did receive the blessing of Leslie.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the RBG went through a most difficult period, as regards financing and staffing (most senior staff were let go, one way or another, in order to save money), I only once was able to engage Leslie in a brief discussion about what appeared to be the demise of the Gardens. As I expected, he was very sad but could not offer any suggestions.

When I suggested that I believed the problem was basically a case that the then Board of Directors of the RBG, along with the series of Directors that the Board had hired for the institution (all of whom served very short terms) were bad choices and neither the Board members nor the Directors had sufficient political savvy to gain the support of either the Provincial or Federal governments, Leslie said he himself did not have sufficient political clout and regretted that.

I then pointed out to him that I remembered well him coming onto Toronto’s John Bradshaw CFRB radio gardening show to solicit memberships and donations for the Gardens in the 1970s and that none of the short-lived successors had made anything near the same sacrifice of driving from Hamilton to Toronto and back on a Saturday morning at their own expense. He said, “I almost forgot about those activities!”

Leslie met his wife Barbara (Tarver) while at Kew Gardens in London, England during WWII. She too, of course, was a horticulturist, with great interest in teaching gardens, new plants and it was she who founded the now famous RBG Women’s Auxiliary. Barbara died of cancer in 1986.

In Leslie’s case, death was an unfortunate intersection of two happenings: first, an outbreak of a virus which put his retirement home under quarantine and second, his weak condition at age 95. Leslie caught the virus and went to the Carpenter hospice for a few days before his death.

His daughter June, was with him when he passed.

Leslie had much of which to be proud.

I believe that had the Gardens not had Leslie as Director during the earlier financial crises in the 70s, it might well have vanished, or at least much of it would have disappeared, with some the really special places becoming City of Hamilton, or City of Burlington public parks. It could easily have met a similar fate to that of Cullen Gardens, east of Toronto more recently in the 2000s. Leslie saved the RBG with his own efforts way back then, but was not around to save it during its most recent problems. Pity!

Ave atque vale. Hale and Farewell fond spirit!

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row