• By: Aaron Nava

Ottawa’s gardens: discover the top hidden gems

Above: Canada’s Olympic Garden

Spring has turned to summer, and people have started going out again. Businesses are reopening, and meetings that have happened over Zoom if at all are happening in person more than before. So perhaps you’ve had the chance to visit Ottawa’s best gardens, like I wrote about last month, but the walls of your home are still a little too familiar, and you’re wondering where to go next.

Well, wonder no more. When I travelled across the Ottawa-Gatineau region to photograph the area’s gardens with Garden Promenade, I discovered less well-known gardens that have a lot of charm and character, from ornate flower arrangements to beautiful views. I was the only person visiting several of these gardens when I arrived, unusual for the pandemic-free afternoons of last August, and I felt glad that I could share these spaces with others. So I hope you’ll appreciate the best hidden gem gardens in Ottawa.

Jeanne D’arc Courtyard Gardens

This beautiful courtyard is tucked between Murray Street and Patrick, just off of Mackenzie King. Imagine one of those alleyways that connect roads running east to west in the Market, with their cobbled paths, except this courtyard is the best-looking one. The garden is centred around its Dancing Bear sculpture, created by Inuit hunter Pauta Saila, one of the dancing bear sculptures he was famous for. Featuring beautiful garden boxes surrounded by classic architecture, this garden features benches during the three warm seasons. It’s noticeably quieter than the surrounding streets, and the shade under the hanging plants feels nice, making it a great place to unwind and relax in the Market.

Nanny Goat Hill Community Garden

Sitting on top of that big hill at Bronson and Laurier, this is one of the largest community gardens in the city, with over 100 vegetable plots sprawling around the gazebo in the centre.It’s hard to believe that the garden used to be even larger, before regulations required the garden to switch from in-ground beds to above-ground beds, but it remains a major gardening project. Walking between the rows of vegetables grown in boxes, you get a sense that you’re witnessing meaningful and wholesome community engagement.  Featuring a diverse array of plants and vegetables, this garden is an impressive project and a good example of Ottawa residents coming together.(Update: although Nanny Goat Hill has reopened to its gardeners this year, it remains closed to the public)  

Tropical Greenhouse

This greenhouse originally sat in Major’s Hill Park, but was moved to the experimental farm in 1938 for gardening research, where tourists on the main roads can miss it if they’re not looking. This heritage building has been open to the public for over 40 years, and while plants have been recently renewed in a multi-year process, the structure’s design still has that old-school feel. The unusual plants that typically grow in warmer climates, like cacti and hanging plants, make the place feel special, like you’ve looked for some hidden warmth in the city and you’ve stumbled upon a secret.

Jardins des nations/Gardens of the Nations

This memorable plaza in front of the La Maison du Citoyen in Gatineau features interesting art pieces, a pool with water fountains, and some curated garden boxes. Stained-glass sculptures sit on the water in the shape of folded paper boats, as if they were set adrift by some imaginative giant. Flagpoles sit inside flower boxes at building entrances, lending some personality to Gatineau City Hall’s entrance. Some of the crumbling pathways could use a renovation, but the bold colour choices and the array of interesting flowers and plants make this garden a unique experience. If you’re looking for a park bench to relax with a book, this is a great place to start. (Hopefully the library there reopens soon!)

National Art Centre Rooftop Garden

When people get off the bus at the Rideau Centre, they usually have no idea how close they are to this hidden garden. Yes, those plants you see on top of the NAC from the ground are accessible to the public, generally at all hours of the day—there’s a set of stairs leading up there on the north side of Mackenzie King Bridge, as well as another set of stairs off of Elgin. The stony roof’s multi-level terrace features an herb garden fueled by the Centre’s new composting program, which grows herbs used in the NAC kitchen and which will divert 500,000 containers from the landfill each year. The garden also features beehives that pollinate the plants, and most importantly, beautiful views of the city from a high vantage point, surrounded by foliage. The Garden should probably be more popular on Instagram, actually —looking down on Commissioner’s Park through the leaves makes for a fantastic selfie.

Fletcher Wildlife Garden

Perhaps the most well-known garden on this list, Fletcher is a project run by the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club. The garden includes a variety of natural habitats, such as woodlots, a butterfly meadow, and an amphibian pond. The diverse environments and little walking paths lend this garden a sense of intimacy and adventure. Lots of stimulating information about habitats, insects and animals is posted for visitors on boards and signs at its unique locations, and on good days you can find volunteers here and there maintaining the property, ready to answer questions. The atmosphere is friendly and polite.

Olympic Garden

Just south of Landsdowne Park, with a beautiful view of the Rideau Canal, you’ll find Canada’s Olympic Garden. Created in 1990 to commemorate the 1988 torch relay, ornate displays of Olympic Flame tulips surround Vilem Zach’s sculpture “Share the Flame”. The reds, yellows, purples and greens give this garden a memorable blend of colours. This is a good place to stop when you’re walking or biking along the canal.

Carré Vaudreuil Gardens

Parc du Carré Vaudreuil, like Gardens of the Nations, features water fountains and colourfully arranged flowers dotted with interesting sculptures, although you’re encouraged to run around under the fountains here. There’s a sandbox, climbing structures for children, and an iron fence surrounding the park, lending the garden a European feel. A gazebo provides some shelter, and there are monuments, including to Jérémie Giles, a French painter and sculptor. Mature trees, shrubs of several varieties and perennials lend the park unusual biodiversity, and provide reason to visit in each season.