Carson the butler may not greet you at the front door, but if you showed up to work in the gardens at Parkwood Estate in Ontario during the Great Depression, Jessie the maid would soon put you in your place and send you scurrying for the back door. That’s what I found out when I took part in the Grand Estate Gardener workshop during my visit to Parkwood, a National Historic Site established in 1919 that was home to the family of auto magnet R.S. “Sam” McLaughlin.
A grand home it was, and grand it still is, thanks to the dedicated staff and volunteers who keep it in authentic period shape, right down to the bottles of bug spray (safely washed out and empty) formerly used to keep garden pests at bay.
The impressive gardens were designed by leading landscape architects of the day, including the Dunington-Grubbs and John Lyle. Mature trees generously shade the sprawling lawns and throughout the grounds, you’ll see sculptures by Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, leading artists of the time who were fondly dubbed “The Girls”.
The central feature of the grounds is the formal garden, designed in Arte-Moderne style with clipped hedges and manicured lawns surrounding a stunning pool and fountain. It was the perfect place to meet executive director Brian Malcolm and curator Samantha George. We chatted as we happily munched on sandwiches and salads (I can recommend the Tandoori chicken wrap) at the garden tea house, which boasts a perfect view of the garden.
But such dallying was to be short-lived. For the afternoon, I was to assume my character of “Hockey Hal” as part of the Grand Estate Gardener workshop. Without revealing too much about the experience (if you’re looking for a fun way to explore garden history, you’ll want to enroll, too), participants go back in time to find out just what it would have been like to be one of a staff of 12 or so gardeners working 12 hours a day, six days a week and earning 12 cents an hour.
In the Italian garden, we learned how to create a planting pattern using a tool that looked like a giant’s compass; in the sundial garden, we cut flowers for arrangements for the elegant rooms of the house; and in the formal garden we learned how to prune the many shrubs that skirt the perimeter.
Afterward, our group met for tea in the home of the former head gardener (one of the few staff members of the era who rated a house on the property). Much laughter ensued, and I think we would all agree that it was a great way to explore the gardens and make new friends.