Near York Boulevard, in the path of exhaust fumes, road salt, icy wind and summer heat is the first thing planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens Rock Garden in 1930, a Cryptomeria. It’s an odd tree, an evergreen native to Japan and happier in warmer climates.
The survival of the plant tagged 001 is symbolic of the story of the Rock Garden, an idea hatched by the visionary city of Hamilton Parks Board and built in an abandoned quarry. It’s been both marvelous and menacing, with beautiful but ragged stone paths, a lack of water and challenging growing conditions.
But now after a $20 million dollar rejuvenation, the first in its 86-year history, it reopens as the David Braley and Nancy Gordon Rock Garden. They donated $2 million toward the project.
The Cryptomeria is now backstopped by the new visitor centre containing event space and a restaurant. The centre with its graceful, curving stonewalls, and leaf shaped roof is a much better introduction to the Rock Garden. Previously visitors walked through a dank tunnel under York Boulevard to get there.
The story of the Cryptomeria was told to me on one of my first visits to the renewed Rock Garden by Peter Wickett, the head gardener there for 24 years and now retired. Wickett and others who worked there, needed to be part mule to tough out the climbs up and down the rocky paths to weed and plant. He, like many others had concerns about the redo of the Rock, mainly about the majestic old trees and how, or if they would be preserved.
“They’ve resolved major issues,” he says of the new design, “they’ve addressed accessibility, the issue of seasonal interest, and attempted to respect original plant material.”
That sums up a lot of the changes visitors will see, when it opens to the public May 20th. While many of the original stepping stone paths down the edges of the bowl remain, new graceful stone stairs with railings have been added. Aldershot Landscape Contractors of Burlington did the heavy lifting of stonework and plantings.
“We’re not afraid of difficulty, it sets us aside from the norm,” Bill DeLuca, company president told me as we chatted in the beautiful stone courtyard near the entrance to the garden. “This kind of project is not a regular occurrence in Hamilton, we were happy to work here.”
DeLuca’s crews were on site for nearly two years, and through two of our most severe winters. In the entrance courtyard two crews of eight worked for three months to build intricate stone walls and lay limestone paving.
The design of the Rock Garden was done by Janet Rosenberg & Studio Inc. of Toronto. But as DeLuca indicated, a drawing is one thing, working on steep terrain is something else. Stone had to be pieced together in mock-ups and then rejigged as stairs and walls were constructed. In addition to new stairways, a wide sloping paved path, suitable for strollers and wheelchairs increases access to the bottom bowl of the garden.
I visited the partially complete Rock Garden last summer when the trees were leafed out and was happy to see so many of the original plants on the slope, the firs, pines, bald cypress, the majestic Korean maple, and Katsura trees. In the new design, exotic evergreens have been added, and more native trees and shrubs. In all the RBG says there are 42,000 new plants, and about 20,000 original plants remain.
The dramatic change comes in the bottom of the bowl, gone are the mass plantings of tulips and daffodils, followed by masses of annuals. That sort of labour intensive approach to gardening isn’t sustainable according to RBG CEO Mark Runciman. “We’ve added drought tolerant plants, pollinators, and native species, to reduce maintenance, we have to garden in a new way.”
So with lots of perennials, the “show in the bowl” should be long lasting, and with the addition of night lighting, and the rebuilt ponds and streams the Rock Garden is designed to be a year-round destination. Many think it might be at its most beautiful in the fall and winter.
I hope people come in droves, the RBG needs the money. They have endless acres to care for, not enough staff, and sometimes it shows. It’s not like the old days as described by my friend Peter Thompstone, who worked there in 1970. “I remember my summers at the rock garden very fondly and the hours I spent tying-up hundreds of snapdragons in perfectly straight row-upon-rows and how my back ached terribly, afterwards.”
So with more show and sizzle it’s a new era at the Rock Garden, and as Burlington councillor Rick Craven said at the opening, “Bring on the brides!”

Written by: Kathy Renwald

Providing a fresh perspective for Hamilton and Burlington

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