Jacqui Laporte and John Empson in Auburn, Ont., make a habit of opening their garden to strangers. Dubbed “Escape from Chaos,” it’s one of the 25 properties that form Discover the Gardens of Huron Perth, this year, part of a growing trend nationally of putting garden routes on a regional map and promoting the route as a tourist destination.
Some gardens are public, others private; some have a mandate to pay tribute to historical landscapes or literary figures, while others, as you might expect, include a commercial aspect such as a cut-your-own flower operation or a tavern. Most ask for a donation, with some having designated a charity that the funds collected support.
How is a garden route different from a self-directed garden tour?
“We’re open typically May to October rather than for a day or a weekend,” says Brenda Sutherland, president of Discover Rural Gardens of Grey and Bruce Counties, another garden route in Ontario.
“That means a lot more maintenance, to be ready for the public for that duration,” she adds, noting that garden owners can designate what days of the week they’re open—and in some cases, they’re open by appointment only.
Brenda, who is also one-third the force behind Earthbound Perennials and Gardens on the South Bruce Peninsula, says her group got off the ground 18 years ago. “There were six or so of us who were passionately gardening and we kept bumping into each other at community events, speaker circuits, stuff like that.”
Folks were trying to get people off the beaten track to find their gardens. “Some of us were businesses, but not all,” she says. “As we started promoting ourselves and finding other gardens we enlarged the group, and at some point, we hooked up with the tourism people to help us develop what they call ‘the product.’ ”
In fact, governments and commercial interests help gardens get on the map generally. Canada’s Garden Route, sponsored in part by Via Rail, provides information about public gardens nationally; Nova Scotia Tourism promotes Garden Road Trip, with nine locations of interest to gardeners.
It’s like connecting the dots, says Michel Gauthier, executive director of Canadian Garden Council, a national umbrella group for provincial and national garden organizations. “We know that garden tourists are cultural tourists. Why not combine interests such as art, culture, culinary, wine…to attract and captivate people?”
Last year, Jacqui estimates they had 75 to 100 people through their Ontario garden, including a bus tour of about 40. In the promotional material, the garden is described as having a raised vegetable garden, a dry riverbed and a snake hibernaculum.
Part of her motivation in participating, Jacqui says, is public education and outreach.
“I probably know the least of anyone on our tour; I don’t know the names of everything and my garden is not immaculate,” she says. “But you don’t necessarily need to be a pro; it’s not the end of the earth if you plant something in the wrong spot.”
Sharing knowledge about growing food in particular is important to Jacqui. Although she grew up on a small farm and her family canned everything, her husband’s foray into growing vegetables started about three years ago; the couple has five children, now teenagers. “You don’t have to feed your family all the time, but it’s good to know you can grow a carrot.”
Her parents, Phil and Patty Laporte, are also included in Discover the Gardens of Huron Perth, highlighting raised vegetable gardens for seniors.
As for the snake hibernaculum, Jacqui—a snake lover—describes it as a big hole bedded with compost, then layered with stones.
“When you’re in a residential setting, it’s difficult to find a fine line between having wildlife habitat on your property, and not making it look like a weed hole,” she says, chuckling.
Quick links for regional garden tours
- Grey Bruce counties in Ontario
- Huron Perth counties in Ontario
- Garden road trip in Nova Scotia
- Peterborough and Area Garden Route in Ontario
Email Garden Making if you have a garden route to add to the links here.