Renovation & Design

Growing a piece of history

Dalnavert's committee develops green space to reflect early gardening practices

Valerie Denesiuk/Golden, or yellow, calla lily
Ed Czarnecki/Dalnavert
Ed Czarnecki/Strawflowers were much admired for the beauty of their flowers when dried, a popular activity at the time Dalnavert was built.
Ed Czarnecki/China aster
Heirloom sweet pea 'Queen Alexandra', 1905

DALNAVERT, the 1895 home of Sir Hugh John Macdonald (son of Canada's first prime minister, John Alexander MacDonald) was restored in the early 1970s to represent the home life of a wealthy family living in Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century.

While the home's interior is beautifully decorated in late-Victorian splendour, the exterior too retains an important part of the home's history.

Framed with curvilinear gardens filled with heirloom plants, the home grounds of Dalnavert not only please the eye, but also express the significance that gardening had at that time. The landscaping practice of framing the home with flora reflects late Victorian horticultural aesthetics, which sought to unite garden and home into one cohesive structure.

Although not enough information remains available about the original garden, Dalnavert's garden committee has painstakingly developed the green space to reflect early gardening practices in Winnipeg and to incorporate the grounds into visitors' experience of the historic site.

While we do not know exactly what plants graced the gardens at Dalnavert, we do know that Lady Macdonald was a vibrant socialite who frequently entertained guests in her home. The home grounds would have played an essential role by creating atmosphere for guests relaxing on the wraparound verandah or by providing cutting flowers that might be placed in the dining room and parlour to freshen the interior.

Dalnavert's garden now contains a large variety of cutting flowers, perennials, and native species -- all of which would have been available for purchase through seed distributors.

There is a wealth of genetic history available in the plants of the past, many of which are at risk of being lost without continued cultivation. Dalnavert's garden is designed to preserve the history of these traditional floral varieties. Examples of plants in the garden include blue cornflowers (which at one time may have decorated a dining room table laid with blue and white china) and fragrant sweet peas, which filled the garden air with perfume. In early spring, lily of the valley lined the garden walkway, their sprays of nodding bells cut and gathered into delicate scented bouquets to decorate the entry hall.

Winnipeg gardeners in 1905 had their choice of eight different cultivars of Chinese peony, available in the Steele Briggs bulb catalogue. In 1922, an attempt was even made to establish the peony as our civic flower.

To embrace the beauty and historic importance of this plant, the Garden Committee has begun to develop an heirloom peony border along the frame of the museum's entrance, featuring seven different varieties. Three-flowered Avens (Geum urbanum) edge the flower bed, complementing the emerging red peony shoots. In early summer, the rosy tones of peony blossoms are echoed in the Sweet William planted nearby.

Future plans for Dalnavert's home grounds include a four-square vegetable garden on the south side and a secret garden tucked away between the house and visitors' centre.

Gardeners wishing to add a vintage touch to their plantings can find heritage seeds in Dalnavert's gift shop. Varieties available are Miss Willmott Sweet Pea, Nigra Hollyhock, Grandpa Ott's Morning Glory, and crego mix Asters, as well as a bridal mix (bachelor's buttons, everlasting strawflower, forget-me-not, love in a mist and none so pretty) and a floral mix (calendula, cornflower, cosmos, larkspur, and poppy). Proceeds from the sale of these seeds support the ongoing development of Dalnavert's historic garden.

Like Lady Macdonald's guests of long ago, visitors to Dalnavert are invited to stroll through the gardens or take in the beauty of the grounds from the vantage point of the elegant verandah.

Jennifer Bisch is the chief program officer and curator, Manitoba Historical Society Dalnavert Museum.


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