It felt as if we had been transported to 19th-century England, but we were in the center of Halifax, in the provincial capital’s Public Gardens, one of the finest original Victorian gardens in North America.
A band struck up a rousing tune in the octagonal band shell. Fountains splashed. Over the way, a string quarter accompanied the clatter of tea-cups at the Mayor’s Garden-Party. Toddlers fed ducks at the pond, while pigeons perched on a tree, waiting for unwary crumbs to fall.
It was easy to imagine nannies in starch-stiff aprons wheeling high perambulators along the pathways among lavish flowerbeds. We almost expected to see Mary Poppins hovering overhead.
There’s been a private garden here as far back as 1753, and in the 1830s, the members of the Nova Scotia Horticultural Society leased 5 ½ acres along Spring Garden Road to demonstrate “the cultivation of choice fruit trees, vegetables, rare plants and flowers.” The aim: to be ‘accessible to all classes’ so they could find ‘health and cheerfulness.’
In 1866 an alderman created another garden on a piece of wasteland nearby, and in 1874 the whole lot was assembled into one. The present layout is thanks to the superintendent, Richard Power, who had been gardener to the Duke of Devonshire in Ireland. Remarkably, Power’s descendants carried on the tradition of caring for the gardens until the 1960s.
You enter this 17-acre urban paradise through ornamental wrought-iron gates imported from Glasgow in 1889. Weeping trees, classical bridges, a stone grotto and a delightful Water Fowl House: it all presented enough activity, floral and otherwise, to keep us haunting the place every day.
Roses edged along archways, 32 “floating gardens” surrounded the band shell, a hibiscus grove blossomed as the art-class from a nearby school keenly sketched it all. There were rare trees, like that living fossil, the ginkgo (Maiden Hair Tree), a confused young pheasant that thought it was a duck, and a giant grey goose straight from a fairy tale with orange beak and feet — and, despite it all, a dignified expression.
Times have changed slightly since our first enchanted discovery of this not-so-secret garden. After living in the gardens for 20 years, Mamma Goose went to that great pond in the sky last year, while a junior pair of Toulouse Geese have been recently adopted to delight the nursery rhyme set. A competition for children to choose their names yielded Flora and Finnigan. (We tried to get a picture, but they were too busy fluffing themselves.)
Visitors are asked not to feed the fowl, nor do the staff. The birds are encouraged to remain self-sufficient, to forage for themselves. They’re doing just fine, although they still waddle hopefully towards you. In fact, the black ducks fly downtown to the harbour for a fish dinner every night.
The rustic post-and-beam Horticultural Hall (1847), the oldest meeting hall in Canada (they kept vegetables in the cellar) serves hand-paddled cream, uber-cinnamon buns, sandwiches and fair trade locally-roasted coffee for those without wings.