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Manitoba History: Horticulture in Manitoba History, Introduction

by Lyle Dick and Ron Frohwerk
Guest Co-Editors

Number 31, Spring 1996

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The garden is a place where we can impart to others our knowledge of a family tradition, and where we can briefly withdraw from the perplexities of the outside world; it is where we plant a seed which we hope will someday flower into a more beautiful landscape, and a more harmonious community.

J. B. Jackson

And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Joni Mitchel

For most of Manitoba’s history, horticulture and gardening have been central to the experience of its peoples. We use the term “horticulture” to signify the cultivation of plants, flowers, and trees, as well as their scientific study. “Gardening” encompasses the cultivation of plants for subsistence, sale or ornamental display, as well as the manipulation of plant material to realize a landscape plan or design.

Hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans and other immigrant groups, horticulture occupied an important role in successful human occupation of this region. As Leigh Syms and Catherine Flynn show in their essay on Manitoba’s first farmers, the province’s Aboriginal populations have for centuries either harvested plant materials from the natural environment, or cultivated plants to provide food or to manufacture goods essential to occupation of the prairie region.

Horticulture and gardening assumed an even greater role in the era of European-Aboriginal trade, as fur traders planted gardens to provision their networks of forts across the West. Plains Aboriginal cultures were by then primarily buffalo hunters, but several groups in this era traded with the agricultural Mandan and Ankara peoples to the south for maize, squash, and beans. In turn, they traded this produce with Europeans for other goods. In this regard, they might be considered the region’s first horticultural entrepreneurs.

The greatest change came after 1870, when Canada acquired Rupert’s Land, and took steps to develop it into a major agricultural region of the new Dominion. The post-Confederation era involved more than a change in the scale of horticultural activity. It represented a complete change in world view, as European and Judeo-Christian concepts of improving the earth invested plant culture with a complex set of meanings extending far beyond its role in subsistence. For the first time, gardening became a repository of memory, an entry point into collective history.

As Susan Buggey points out in her review article on four recent works on landscape history, European and North American perceptions of landscape have been shaped by a variety of historical traditions. Whether serving as an entry point to some of the great myths of Western civilization, as a shared framework for the social memory of ethnocultural communities, or as a demonstration of the authority of monarchs, cultural landscapes have served as important documents to our collective history.

Paradoxically, while landscape offered a route of access to the past, it has also functioned as a vehicle for the promotion of concepts of the future. After 1870, a common vision of the province as a fully-integrated component of the Canadian political and commercial framework led prominent political and business interests to promote horticulture as an essential support to attracting and sustaining settlement. Lyle Dick’s survey of the development of prairie horticulture in this period describes how federal, provincial, and municipal governments, private companies, and grass-roots activists envisioned the recreation of a garden province in the heyday of central Canadian expansionism. An example of their influence was the city beautiful movement, which first emerged on the prairies in Winnipeg. The article by John Lehr, John Selwood and Mary Cavett describes the development of an urban park system in Winnipeg that served as a model across the region.

The promotion of the gospel of horticulture in the settlement era reminds us of the ideological role of gardens in our history. There were specific ideological agendas, including the use of gardens as vehicles for instilling patriotism, as in the school gardens of the First World War. Promoters even saw the potential in the school gardens to Canadianize recent immigrant groups. But the overriding ideological agenda of the horticultural movement was the assertion of a new future-oriented vision of progress in the West.

Beyond the involvement of governments, large corporate concerns also played a role in Manitoba’s garden history, as Edwinna von Baeyer shows in her discussion of the railway gardens. In the settlement era, both the CPR and the CNR established numerous gardens adjacent to their rail stations across the West. Designed to be viewed by passengers while the train was in the station, these gardens were intended to demonstrate to prospective settlers that this region was viable for long-term occupation.

We must not overlook the contributions of the many anonymous individuals who did most of the actual gardening in Manitoba’s history. The window boxes in Elizabeth Blight’s photo essay were repeated endlessly in rural and urban areas across the province, as homemakers brightened their kitchens and proprietors spruced up their offices with ubiquitous geraniums and other flowers. Vernacular gardens also provided important and inexpensive additions to the diet of families in towns and on the farm. With the arrival of spring, women and men planted their outdoor gardens, which they tended during the growing season, and harvested in the late summer. In the autumn, canning of preserves customarily followed, with the produce gracing the family’s table throughout the winter.

A poignant example of individual endeavour was the planting of trees on memorial avenues after the First World War. Gordon Fulton shows in his essay “Roads of Remembrance” that the memorial drives established in the 1920s were part of a larger movement to foster the planting of trees to commemorate the war’s fallen soldiers. Assisted by governments, it was nevertheless a deeply personalized form of commemoration, as the family of the soldier assumed responsibility for planting and tending the growth of the tree. It must have helped survivors cope with death through giving life—through the simple act of planting a tree.

The First World War inspired an even more lasting garden memorial in the International Peace Garden south of Boissevain. In his essay, Charles Thomsen describes the philosophy and plan of the garden, and its evolution over time. Established to commemorate the peaceful co-existence between Canada and the United States, the garden remains one of the most impressive designed landscapes in Manitoba and North Dakota, and an enduring symbol of peace.

The memorial drives and the Peace Garden demonstrate the role of gardens as places of solemnity and reflection. Yet, our gardens have also been places of work, recreation, and hope for the future. They have fed the province’s residents, brightened their homes, provided backdrops to weddings, and offered innumerable carefree moments during Manitoba’s short summers. They have served as places of education, recreation, contemplation, and delight.

The surviving trees that line the former memorial drives, like urban parks and boulevards, and the shelterbelts of former and current farmsteads and surrounding fields, are monuments to the spirit of the province’s builders. Whether designers of parks, the mourners of fallen soldiers, farmers, or homemakers, the makers of Manitoba’s gardens were imbued with a sense of purpose and a belief in the potential of this province and its people. In their works they bequeathed us a great legacy.

Mrs. Walton’s flower garden near Stonewall, 1917.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 26 September 2012

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