Pioneer Gardens In Ontario

Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, April 1981
These articles are reprinted as they were originally published.
No attempt has been made to correct or update the content. If the topic interests you, we encourage you to do further research and/or reach out to us for any updates or corrections which may have been done since the original publication date.

Remnants of old pioneer gardens still to be found along the Side and Concession roads of southern Ontario are the chief source of information about the flowers, shrubs and trees that were once commonly grown by the early settlers of this area.

For the very first settlers, there was little time for growing flowers in the form we recognize today. So much time and energy was devoted to producing sufficient food necessary to support existence in such a harsh and threatening climate. Once land was purchased, a log house or crude cabin was erected, and the land was prepared for crops. With little more than axes, the bush was cleared, trees chopped down or burnt and large stones cleared from the fields. Then with seeds and roots that they had carried with them or which they had received from the Government of Upper Canada, the land was planted.

Within a year or two, a yard garden, planted close to the cabin was usually made. Here the women planted the roots and seeds of vegetables, herbs and flowers and a few useful shrubs in the roughly cleared earth. Care was given as time allowed and with tools that were handmade and quite primitive.

The early gardens were not very attractive. There were casual groups of shrubs and flowers which were planted in clumps, usually within the confines of a small enclosure, fenced with tree stumps or freshly cut osiers stuck in the ground, plaited and twisted to form a thick wall. The little yards often became piled with raw lumber for home heating, cluttered with garbage, and cattle, dogs, poultry, even pigs often gained entry and roamed at will ….. there were few tidy lawns and planned flower beds as is the fashiont today Most women simply planted seeds where there was a convenient space, and although flower seeds were for sale in all towns from the 1840’s on. And a number of nurseries were able to supply plant material, the common practice was to sae seeds from year to year and to share the divided shrubs and perennials with one’s neighbours or friends at a social gathering. For the pioneer woman, a garden provided a pastime to relieve the loneliness and hard life, and one of the most welcome presents one could receive from relatives or visitors was a gift of seeds or plants. Many Loyalists visited their friends and relatives in the United States and returned with new and less familiar flowers to Canada.

When looking for pioneer gardens, the first evidence is often a lilac bush or grouping, usually a short distance back from the road’s edge. Closer search around foundations or old walls will often reveal a bush rose, a climbing rose gone to briar, plumes of rhubarb in seed, sometimes a stunted old red peony, half-smothered in grass, but surviving, and always a tight clump of day lilies. Butter-and-egg and blue bell flowers were originally garden flowers of the settlers, now they grace almost every road in the Township, but as for the other plants which might once have been grown, few will have survived the long neglect. The original yard fences to keep out the stray animals may still exist in these abandoned gardens, hidden by shrubs and trees that have gown at will, lines of raspberries reverted to an almost wild state, even the occasional crab apple still to be seen.

As settlers prospered, lawns, flowers and ornamental shrubs came to occupy the space at the front of the house and became known as the Parlour  Garden. Gradually some customs regarding the place where  particular flowers should be planted developed, but there was rarely any formal  design in country gardens. In the front, flowers were grown, for as a general rule, settlers removed all trees from the front part of their property. Annuals and perennials of all colours and height were massed together to produce a striking display. Daffodils, narcissus, tulips, grape hyacinths and Star of Bethlehem bloomed in spring. Among the early summer flowers was the iris, followed by the day lilies, Canterbury bells, sweet Williams, pansies, mignonette, Oswego tea, lupins, honesty, dahlias and asters. The great days of these gardens, however, were the twenty days of peony blooms from great clumps of flowering red peonies.

At the corners of the fence, a few old-fashioned shrubs were always seen. Inevitably there was the lilac (originally called “laylock”), syringias  and the snowball and high bush cranberry. Virgin’s bower tumbled over the fence and periwinkle or myrtle grew under the bushes ad often crept  through the slats. At the side of the house were prized fruit trees and currant bushes, and along the fences were the hollyhocks and sunflowers that provided privacy to the garden and the privy!

Some vegetables for the table, lettuces, radishes, a few tomato plants and herbs were grown at the back of the house. Most herb beds contained plants for medicinal and culinary purposes, such as dill, thyme, sage, sweet savory, mint, fennel, caraway, and parsley. In the fall of the year these herbs were collected and dried for winter use. A clump of rhubarb, often called pie-plant, and one of horseradish were usually in a back corner, together with the Jerusalem artichoke. Crowding everything were thickets  of the fragrant currant known in rural Ontario as Missouri currant, with its yellow blossoms and dark fruit. On the south wall of the house, honeysuckle or wisteria filled the air with the scent of flowers, and in cool, shaded spots tall ferns, plantain lilies and lilies of the valley carpeted the ground close to the house.

No one sat in these gardens and few even walked up the centre path to the front door. The casual visitor who, driving up the lane, would naturally come to the side gate and back door, would be taken “through” and out the front door for an admiring stroll among the flowers. Any sitting in the garden was done on the verandah. Direct exposure to the sun was regarded  by everyone as dangerous, and for this reason, people wore large straw  hats or sunbonnets when they gardened.

It is sad and rather strange that many popular flowers of the gardens, flowers which are both hardy and lovely are now almost forgotten by growers. Only old family photographs of gardens, seed and nursery catalogues and abandoned pioneer homes remind us of such past times.


  • “Illustrated Atlas of Huron County 1879”
  • Illustrated Atlas of Wentworth County 1875”  Page & Smith, Toronto “Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada by a ‘Canuck’ ”. Michael Scherck, Toronto
  • “The Canadian Gardener”  Asa Parker

Rhubarb, a certain sign that “Spring” has arrived in the garden, was very important to the pioneer housewife. This recipe for Rhubarb Pie was taken from a small handwritten book of Mrs. Harry McDonald. As Emma Susan  Waller, she was the first child to be baptised in St. Mary’s Church, Bartonville in  1881, the grand-daughter of one of the earliest settlers  of Barton Township. This gentleman, William Waller, listed himself as a ‘gardener’ on the 1842 and 1851 Census returns of Barton Township.

Beat together 1 cup sugar, 2 egg yolks, 1 tbsp butter, 2 tbsp flour, 3 tbsp cold water. Cover 2 cups Rhubarb with boiling water, let stand 5 minutes, drain and mix with above ingredients. Empty into a pie plate lined with pastry. Bake 15 minutes at 450, reduce to 350, bake another 30 minutes. Cover with    Meringue and brown in oven for 5 minutes at 450.

*Editors Note: The file copy of this article is of very poor quality. When researching the references to find the originals of the sketches reproduced in the Heritage Paper, we were unable to find the publication by Michael Scherck, assumed to be the source of the sketches of the implements. However the exact same images can be found in “A Museum of Early American Tools”. Sloan, Eric. Ballantine Books, New York, 1973.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1981, 2015


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