Head outside and visit Ottawa's great gardens
Now that the Gatineau bridge checkpoints have been lifted, and the NCC parks are loosening their visiting rules, a visit to the Ottawa region’s gardens seems like a great idea to get out of the house, and maybe go for a socially-distant walk with a friend. Last August, I visited 40 gardens as the communications assistant for Garden Promenade, and took over 1,000 pictures. This gave us the detailed photographs of Ottawa-Gatineau gardens that we were missing, and helped our social media content win Garden Marketing Campaign of the Year at the 2019 Canadian Garden Tourism Awards. Hopefully my photos and experiences encourage you to go for a visit, and give you a sense of what makes Ottawa’s best gardens special.
Some gardens may have special rules around visiting, hours of availability or parking. Be sure to check before visiting.
Major's Hill Park
A staple tourist destination, this sprawling garden sits next to the Market downtown, and compliments its lush flowerbeds with great views of the water, the Parliament buildings and the city. In particular, the Park is home to some of the main tulip displays established by the National Capital Commission. Sitting for a minute on a bench — or better yet, on the grass — is highly recommended.
The Dominion Arboretum
The Experimental Farm is home to many fine gardens, and none are finer than the Dominion Arboretum. The Arboretum has a microclimate, and contains plants that are usually harder to grow in Ottawa, including Magnolias and Rhodenderons. In general, The Experimental Farm has been demonstrated to clean Ottawa's air of some pollutants, and the air certainly feels fresher as you walk along the water, or under the giant trees, some over a century old.
The Arboretum blends seamlessly into Fletcher Wildlife Garden to the south, which is a great place to learn about local wildlife. It's nice to have a garden in the city that you can get lost in.
Portageur Park Gardens/Jardins du Parc du Portageur
Portageur Park feels designed for a relaxing walk among the trees, as it certainly was. Sitting on the water, the foot path crosses a babbling brook, and its green spaces are dotted with interesting sculptures.
For a bit more adventure, start at the north end and walk to the south, so that you can easily cross over into the nearby Parc de la francophonie Garden, the Ruisseau de la Brasserie Gardens and the Théâtre de l'Île Gardens). These are one of the best collections of gardens outside of The Experimental Farm and downtown Ottawa, and would make an excellent 20-30 minute walk, just from one end to the other. (It lasts even longer, if you stop and smell the flowers.)
Confederation Park Gardens
These gardens are just south of the National Arts Centre and the Rideau Centre, and feature a diverse array of trees tucked between flowerbeds. The centrepiece is a memorial fountain celebrating Colonel By.
Beyond being an excellent place to sit and rest in downtown Ottawa, Confederation Park adds a sense of colour and life to the hard right angles of the buildings towering alongside.
The Ornamental Gardens, sitting just north of the Agriculture and Food Museum, are probably the best-constructed gardens in the city. Row after row of perennials and shrubs bursting with colour are artfully arranged into distinctive patterns.
These sit beside a sunken garden with a pond and fountain at its centre; gnarled trees, some with histories stretching back decades, set the scene. It’s a great place to learn more about gardening.
Maplelawn Historic Garden
Surrounded by high walls just off Richmond near Westboro, you could miss Maplelawn Garden if you drove past it. Thankfully, the 19th century walled garden is a rare sight, featuring charming pebbled paths that give the flora a unique feel, like you’re going on a walk that someone has designed (as they very well have). Plaques and signs dot the property, giving you a sense of Ottawa’s heritage.
The bumble bees are mostly harmless, but you can find them collecting pollen all over the garden, flying in lazy arcs.
The University of Ottawa Social Science Building Vertical Garden
The Social Science Building Vertical Garden is one of several vertical gardens in the city, including the Richcraft Hall Vertical Garden at Carleton University and the Jim Flaherty Building Vertical Garden. However, the vertical garden at the University of Ottawa is by far the largest and most impressive, not to mention the tallest in Canada, at six stories tall. The garden reduces heating and cooling costs, sometimes renders building humidifiers unnecessary, and generally represents an impressive feat of natural engineering. You can see the wall on video on the Garden Promenade Facebook page.
The Bank of Canada Plaza Garden
There are many businesses and organizations in downtown Ottawa with a garden square out front, including the notable World Exchange Plaza Garden, but The Bank of Canada Plaza Garden is perhaps the most distinctive. A series of large stone pyramids jut out of the ground, providing both distinctive architecture and the building’s eastern entrance. These pyramids provide stone, bleacher-style seats for watching events, surrounded by a variety of greenery. The Bank of Canada itself features a tropical garden inside, which is usually a popular destination for tourists and weddings.
The Plaza Garden provides easy access to Sparks Street, itself dotted with Container Gardens, and a nice view of the nearby Parliament Buildings.
Parliament Hill Gardens
Although the most notable location in Ottawa is known more for its buildings and what goes on in them, Parliament Hill has wide open green spaces and considerable amounts of curated plant life. The centrepiece are the two wide, tourist-pleasing flowerbeds in front of the Peace Tower, featuring hardy, low-to-the-ground evergreen bushes along with a selection of colourful flowers. The seat of Canada’s government is, of course, dotted with sculptures and contains numerous historic buildings. A walk through here has the calm feel of a walk in the park, but imbued with a sense of history.
Ongoing construction limits access to all of the green spaces, as do current travel restrictions. But hopefully Canadians will be attending Yoga classes on the Hill again soon.