A Niagara Garden Tour (in Three Acts)

In June, I had the pleasure of spending several days touring local gardens with a gang of 65 garden bloggers from across North America and England.  Part busman’s holiday, part chance to see my region afresh through the eyes of others, the Garden Bloggers’ Fling was a really fun experience  One of my favourite Fling days was our trip to the Niagara region, culminating with a walking tour of three gardens in Niagara-on-the-Lake. A   pretty little town about 20 minutes east of Niagara Falls, NOTL is a tourist mecca for its flowery main street filled with shops, its restaurants and its neighbouring vineyards, but mostly for the annual Shaw Festival – six months of theatre highlighting the plays of George Bernard Shaw and other playwrights whose works touch on societal mores.

As we walked through the three spectacular town gardens that had just been featured on the NOTL Garden Tour,it occurred to me that each could have been the leafy set of its very own theatrical production.


Our first garden was a little bit of Victorian heaven, in which I could easily imagine Henry Higgins striding about, snipping at the boxwood parterres while Eliza Doolittle followed him, ogling the blossoms like the Cockney flower vendor she was while practicing her phonetics. “The rine, in Spine, falls minely on the pliiine….”. The formal parterres were arrayed around a Victorian armillary sundial, each square enclosing shimmering white peonies and a kousa dogwood. Beyond lay a perfect patch of lawn attended by four nymphs.  Indeed, in ancient Greek mythology,  Pygmalion (on whom G B Shaw patterned his play) fell in love with a statue – perhaps one that looked just like these draped beauties.

Boxwood parterres

At the rear of the garden, behind a rectangular pool with fountain and four urns was a lovely Victorian garden temple in the most sublime mustard with khaki-green columns. On either side, more tiny, perfect buildings… guesthouses, perhaps?

Formal pool

All the furnishings had a prim Victorian air, including a cast iron cherub standing triumphantly atop a turtle, and a pretty Grecian-inspired urn in front of a cast-iron table and chairs.

Cherub & Grecian Urn

There was about this garden an air of the folly, its elements designed to evoke a different era, a different world, a sophisticated escape. Indeed, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Pygmalion: “What is life but a series of inspired follies?  The difficulty is to find them to do.  Never lose a chance: it doesn’t come every day.”


The second garden occupied a large, leafy corner in old town – a rarified woodland so shade-dappled and cool, it seemed to be on another planet from Queen Street with its heat and crowds and hustle and bustle. Our tour began in front of a large pink sculpture nestled between two young ginkgo trees.  “What do you think it is?” asked the gardener, who was there to guide us around in the owners’ absence.


After several guesses from our group, she replied, “You’re all right, of course. It’s anything you want it to be.”  And indeed, that freedom to interpret art and beauty in one’s own eyes (and ears) encouraged me to adopt a musical theme for this garden: the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Scheherazade. More on that later….

In the meantime, this is our first view of the fabulous swimming pool, surrounded by layers of foliage in rich, jewel-box colours. (I saw the owner a few weeks later and he said that he wished we could have seen it when all these trees were in spring blossom mode. I’m sure that would have been heavenly.)  And I love the linear pool border with its fountains of ‘Gracillimus’ maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis).

Swimming pool & foliage

Speaking of jewels, did I mention that I love turquoise? I do, especially used cleverly to echo the turquoise water of the pool.

Turquoise pots.JPG

And this! How cool (literally and figuratively) to have a shallow part of the pool in which to dabble your toes, without committing fully to a swim.  The perfect place for Scheherazade to spin a tale like Sinbad the Sailor, while dabbling her dainty toes…

Pool & Chairs

Or perhaps she could find a seat in a cool, shady glade like this.

Woodland seating

The garden is filled with textural foliage, and in the damp spots there are yellow flag irises (I. pseudacorus).

Foliage texture

Now climb the stone stairs…..

Stone stairs

….and turn towards the covered terrace with its pillars and shimmering drapes…..

Draped terrace

….and the infinity-fountain spilling neatly down the house wall into the garden, and perhaps you begin to see why I’m thinking of Scheherazade?

Garden view

Because if this isn’t the perfect stage setting for a vizier’s daughter to think up a thousand and one tales to engage the king (and save her life) through all those Arabian nights…


….while reclining on velvet plum pillows atop a divan in candlelight, I can’t imagine what is.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Our final Niagara-on-the-Lake garden requires an imagined stage shift a few hundred miles away to the little town of Stratford and its eponymous summer festival featuring the plays of William Shakespeare. To find out why, let’s just head into this first enclosed garden, with its appropriate stage name mounted on the entrance gate.

Garden sign

Yes, it is definitely a green room. Cool, verdant and an enclosed sanctuary to calm the fevered summer brow.

Green Room

Judging from all the rustic outdoor lamps set artfully beside benches and chairs throughout this waterfront property, the gardeners seem to enjoy it by dark. Thus, my Shakespearean theme: a bucolic setting for a midsummer night’s dream – and maybe a pretty splashy garden party, too.

Luytens bench & lamp

Now, step through the unique vine-and-animal gate and the curtain goes up on a spectacular view of the infinity pool dropping away to the mouth of the Niagara River flowing into Lake Ontario.

Pool entrance Gate

There’s something very theatrical about this little seat pour-deux.

Swim stools-infinity pool-Lake Ontario

Walk around the swimming pool (more on that in a minute) and you get the final, jaw-dropping vista: Old Fort Niagara in New York State across the river.  Built by the French on the site of a 1726 trading post at a time when they controlled the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley, the fort was expanded to its current size in 1755 but fell to the British in 1759 in the Battle of Fort Niagara during the French & Indian War.  The fort remained in British hands until after the American War of Independence, when it was occupied by American forces. During the War of 1812, British forces seized the fort, but relinquished it to the United States after the 1814 Treaty of Ghent.

Old Fort Niagara

Back to the swimming pool. Is this not the most beautiful setting for a midsummer night’s dip….?

Swimming pool

….followed by a nightcap next to the outdoor fireplace, of course.  For me, this concept of rustic outdoor parlor elevates the pool – which can often be difficult to work gracefully into a landscape – into a lovely setting with a surprisingly cozy ambiance.

Swimming pool parlor

The garden beds are not overly ornate, but could easily substitute in a pinch for the setting in Act 2, Scene 1 of the Bard’s play, where Oberon says to Puck  “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine…” 


Let’s just sit down here in this mossy chair and wait for the sun to set. Then we’ll turn on the lamp and watch the lights of the Toronto skyline twinkle far away across the lake.  We may even nod off here – to sleep, perchance, to dream.

Garden chairs and rustic lamp


The Gardens of Lakewinds

There’s nothing nicer than a mini-summer-holiday with old friends.

Unless it’s old friends and really good theatre.

Scratch that. Unless it’s old friends and really good theatre and good food and wine.

Scratch that.  Unless it’s old friends and really good theatre and good food and wine while staying in a lovely bed & breakfast with a spectacular garden. That’s how I spent several days last week in the lovely theatre town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, while taking in five productions of the annual Shaw Festival.  And, of course, catching up with old friends, as we do every summer here; dining in town; sipping wonderful Niagara wines; visiting the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden; and resting our heads at the charming Lakewinds Bed and Breakfast.

Lakewinds Bed & Breakfast

This was our first stay at Lakewinds and I was excited, as I’d visited it on a garden tour years ago. Jane and Steve Locke bought the manor house in 1994 (once the summer home of a scion of the Fleischmann yeast family of Buffalo) and refurbished it completely.  It’s a wedge shot from the historic (1875) Niagara Golf Course across the street and beyond that, the shore of Lake Ontario (thus the Lakewinds name) and a healthy 6-9 block walk from the centre of town, all three Shaw theatres and lots of restaurants and shopping.  Not to mention thousands of tourists!

After seeing the matinees and before heading out to dinner, we sat on the big front veranda in the late afternoon.

Main Veranda

In fact, there are two shady verandas at Lakewinds.  The side one has a nice view of the long, shade border.

Arbor & Side Veranda

And a great centrepiece of Rex begonias.

Rex begonia

A stroll towards the border takes you past the stairs festooned with a massive swath of Hall’s honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’) mixed with clematis.  As big as it was, Jane said she’d recently trimmed most of it away!

Clematis and honeysuckle

Here’s the long border, with its quiet mix of mostly green hostas and other foliage plants.

Front Border

On the most hot, humid day of the summer so far, we took a post-matinee dip in the lovely swimming pool.

Swimming pool

Stand under the redbud tree and you get a view over the pool along the checkerboard paving into the potager-style vegetable garden.

Pool view to potager

I love this kind of path!

Checkboard flagstone path

In early July, it’s just getting started, but the potager is full of colour..


There are lots of cottage garden flowers here, including red breadseed poppies (Papaver somniferum) and orange Spanish poppies (P. rupifragum).


And Clematis ‘Rooguchi’ is climbing the obelisk.

Clematis 'Rooguchi'

Off in a corner is a little formal space centred with a fountain.

Fountain garden

And at the back of the property is a serene, shady woodland with a path running through.

Shade walk

Jane keeps a bowl of flowers on long dining room table where we enjoyed breakfast…..

Flowers on table

And on the table in the lobby where afternoon sherry was accompanied by the curried almonds that Jane has made famous.  By chance, I found these nuts on the internet years ago and they’ve become part of my Christmas cooking routine.   The breakfasts were delish – eggs Benedict, Belgian waffles, and baked French toast, below.  Because you can’t start a day with George Bernard Shaw on anything less than a full stomach!

French toast