Friday, August 5, 2016

Calgary Parks; Reader Rock Garden

     During August I will hopefully be able to feature some of Calgary's best public gardens on this site. Reader Rock Garden is definitely one of my favourites! I have been coming to this garden since I was a young boy, we used to come here to watch the Stampede fireworks which is about as close as you can get without actually being in the Grandstand and nobody seemed to know about this spot either! I think this place instilled my love of horticulture which would probably make William Reader, the architect of this place, very happy. I spent many afternoons here with my Dad, running all over the rock paths, photographing plants and marveling at this place and it's uniqueness.

The Garden is located basically at the intersection of Macleod Trail and 25th Ave. SW adjacent to the Union Cemetery.
Price: Free!
Size: about 3 acres, you could probably see it in about an hour, keep in mind it's mostly on a hill though.
Parking: has good signage and is at the bottom of the hill to the left, it could be a steep climb for the elderly if you are going for the cafe.
Amenities: there is a restaurant/cafe located at the top of the hill in a replica of the original house.

     This garden is as much a walk through history as it is a plant collection! I never knew about the history or the man as this garden was mostly a forgotten corner of Calgary for many decades, now after a restoration project in 2005 there are information plaques that tell the story. Above the original "Arts and Crafts" style house that was built by the City  for the Superintendent of Parks in 1912, a year later William Reader moved in and began installing rocks to stabilize the hill thus the rock garden was born. Reader was an avid collector of plants, his goal was to demonstrate to newcomers to the city what could be grown in our demanding climate. Reader kept detailed lists and maps of his garden and by the 1930's had collected over 4,000 species in this garden! He collected plants from all over the world as far away as China and also locally from our own area for his alpine area. In it's day this garden rivaled Buchart Gardens in Victoria and was recognized by Kew Gardens, London, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, the Botanical Gardens of Harvard and the Canadian Agricultural Research Station making it one of the most important gardens of Western Canada! I also learned from one of the information sites that Queen Mary's sister, Lady Elphinstone, asked Reader to send her seeds from the Alberta Western Wood Lily. And speaking of Royalty...

     Here is William Reader on the Right with Edward VIII planting trees at the Royal Ranch, the E.P. Ranch just southwest of Calgary. Readers handwritten note, on display in the park, says "His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales planting trees under my direction at the E.P. Ranch. He does not look very pleased with his boss, but thats the fault of the camera." So this is one of the wackiest things I absolutely did not know about the City I was born and raised in! Somehow it has escaped local mythology that Edward and Mrs. Simpson used to frequent the area and I'm not sure why? I had to look this up separately but Edward loved the area and bought the ranch to raise experimental animal breeds and visited many times after abdication until selling the place in 1962. Well, I'm floored! Now I have to find out if this ranch is open to the public, it's listed as a historic site.

     Here is one of the typical walkways mostly sandstone from local sources and demolished sandstone buildings, afterall Calgary was known as the "Sandstone City" at the turn of the century!

Here you can see what was maybe once the cornice of an old building.

     Here a mugho pine was planted by Reader to instill a sense of mystery to this area, it's one the largest I've seen in Calgary.

     It's hard to believe that this Colorado Blue Spruce was the first ever planted in Calgary by Reader in 1918. These trees are so common all over the City now but now whenever I see one, which I can from almost any vista, I will think of William Reader. This garden has won many Provincial and National Awards and is a Provincial Historic Resource and there are plans to apply for National designation.

     Here is a plaque erected by the Horticultural Society in 1944, just a couple of years after Reader's death, he was a founding member of the Society, the first one in Canada! Reader was the Superintendent of Parks from 1913 to 1942. A year after retirement, and forced to leave his City owned house and property, he died of a heart attack some say of a broken heart over leaving his garden. After his death the garden was opened to the public and was quite popular for a few decades but without the daily care of the original gardener the place fell into disrepair and neglect by the later decades of the 20th century. Many of the original plants were  collected for preservation by concerned local gardeners and others simply stolen.

     These cobblestones were placed by Reader to funnel water off the steep hill, I believe this to be the only thing like cobblestone in Calgary! The river rock gutter of smooth stones is quite a feat and was apparently covered up for many decades, I do not remember seeing these before!

Some of the alpine slope that is just West of the house.

     The tree in the mid ground is an Ohio Buckeye and probably the oldest in Calgary. I remember this tree from when I was a boy and thinking it was absolutely amazing, I had never seen one anywhere else in the City.

     Plants like the Little Leaf Linden on the left and the Disporum are really what make this garden a  showplace of unusual species that even I am not that familiar with!

     There are many shade plants as the garden is mostly surrounded by large conifers, the 2x2 stakes are replicas of what Reader used as markers.

     For some reason the waterfall on the left was not working today but I remember it as a very stunning feature. It is hard to believe we are still in Calgary when the sun shines through these Ostrich Ferns!

     This is not the most flowery time of year but still a pleasant stroll on a summers day. The restoration project was quite an undertaking according to the information plaques. There are many varieties and species of perennials which are hard to find or even extinct. One area explains how Iris growers in Washington State donated many old and hard to find varieties and went through the lengthy process of shipping plants across the border from the U.S. Many other varieties were collected from local gardeners through seeds and cuttings.
An information plaque about the restoration project below;

     The garden is adjacent to the Union Cemetery making it a quiet and reflective space as well as an interesting side trip if you're into that kind of thing. I noticed that there are cemetery tours on a regular basis which one can look up on the City website.

     The hill overlooks the Stampede Grounds where the giant flag is located as well as the skyline. The replica house would have a stunning view of this! I can't find too much about the menu here, the website does not say a lot, it can be booked for weddings and is open for lunch and brunch.

The entrance to Union Cemetery adds to the historic flavour of the place, this is the only freestanding colonnade I can think of in the entire city! The adjacent cemetery is quite fitting for the mood of Reader Rock Garden a place for reflecting on the past but also for the future and legacy. I now think that William Reader was one of the most important Calgarians in history! Sure there are the Big 4 characters who started the Stampede and the Lougheeds and even Colonel Macleod but what would this city be like if we only had 3 kinds of trees and shrubs? Pretty boring! The legacy of this garden is people like myself who are always on the lookout for something new to grow with an aim to share new ideas with other Calgarians, this place was my early inspiration and after the wonderful restoration can be an inspiration for future generations.

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