Monday, March 2, 2015

A Community Coming Together: The Enabling Garden

What's a sign that a public garden has been well designed and executed?

People. Lots of people. 

Seniors sipping their coffee, families with babies in strollers, and visitors pausing to admire the flowers on a warm evening last summer were all evidence that the Enabling Garden in the heart of Guelph, Ontario is a community garden in the truest sense of the word. 

Trevor Barton, the Enabling Garden's Chair, tells me that the initial concept for the garden began with a fortuitous meeting with Betty Richard, Disabilities Co-ordinator for the City of Guelph at a round table Millennium planning session back in 1999.  

When the two struck up a casual conversation about community gardens, conservation and horticultural therapy, the idea to create an accessible garden emerged.

Trevor Barton recounts: "From that chance meeting we reached out further to other liked minded people which included a number of key community players who were Master Gardeners, Ability and Senior's Co-ordinators to plant the seed of this accessible garden project. Fortunately, the City of Guelph at the time was an enthusiastic supporter of the Communities in Bloom and I was able to bring the Director of Recreation and Parks and the Park Planner for the city into the group to develop this idea further."

"From that humble beginning we were able to develop a plan. The City of Guelph donated the land within Riverside Park to build this fully accessible Enabling Garden, which officially opened in June 2005 (the hundred year anniversary of Riverside Park)."

"From 2000-2005 we continually fundraised and brought in many sponsors and benefactors like Reid's Heritage Homes who provided the lion share of donations and in-kind support with builders, earth moving machinery and construction expertise. During this time we were also successful in securing a Trillium Grant which enabled us to hire a Landscape Designer to lead the project..."

Glynis Logue, a Guelph-based environmental designer, brought to this venture her extensive background designing 'healing landscapes'. One of the garden's main objectives was to create a safe, accessible, interactive space. The intent was to foster sense of community ownership, while at the same time contributing to the physical and emotional well-being of its users.

Glynis incorporated into the garden's layout gentle, sweeping curves and a spiral refuge which serves as an enclosure for the garden's year round workshops. 

The pathways she designed were wide with smooth, flat surfaces that could accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and clients with low vision. Special benches were made with custom armrests to allow visitors to sit and rise easily easily.

 Echinacea in the foreground with native Cup Flowers in the distance.

In terms of the plantings, one of Glynis Logue's innovations was to use native perennials and grasses instead of the formal bedding plants often found in traditional public gardens. These are tough, hardy plants that don't rely on excess water or chemicals to fend off pests.

In keeping with the garden's emphasis on mental and physical wellness, she also included a wide variety of plants that have healing properties. Here are just a few of the healing plants Glynis incorporated into the Enabling Garden: 

Boneset 'Chocolate'Eupatorium rugosum, which is a fever reducer

English lavender 'Munstead', Lavandula augustifolia can be used a muscle relaxant

Greek OreganoOriganum vulgare hirtum which is a digestive aid

New England Fall AsterSymphyotrichum novae-angliae can be used as a sleep aid

Golden Lemon ThymeThymus x citriodorus 'Variegata' is a herb that can boost the immune system

Culver's RootVeronicastrum virginicum which is a blood purifier

Echinacea with yellow Cup Flowers in the distance.

Cup Flower, Silphium Perfoliatum: The leaves of this native plant form a "cup" around a central stem giving the plant its common name. To the delight of birds and insects, rainwater collects in this shallow leaf basin. In the fall, Goldfinches love to devour the seeds. Cup Plant likes full sun and moist soil best. Height: 120-240 cm ( up to 8'), Spread: 60-90 cm. USDA Zones: 4-8.

Rudbeckia with Liatris in the foreground.

Joe Pye Weed

This is one public space that does not expect visitors to admire the plants and flowers from a polite distance. On the contrary, visitors are encouraged to reach out and touch textured foliage and enjoy fragrant flowers like Lavender. 

Benches overlooking the river also make this the perfect place to sit, listen and reflect.

I am not sure of the exact cultivar here, but if you find this combination of Rudbeckia and Phlox pretty, I am sure you will like this Phlox:
Phlox paniculata 'Nicky': Nicky's deep plum color makes it a great companion for late summer Rudbeckia and Echinacea. Full sun or light shade. Height: 90-120 cm (36-48 inches), Spread: 60-90 cm (24-36 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.

One of the things that appeals to me, as an artist, is that many of the garden's fundraisers became nice decorative touches. A perfect example are these bricks that edge the paths.

In the centre courtyard, there are community gardens and raised cedar beds at different heights to accommodate seniors and people in wheelchairs. 

A horticultural therapist on staff structures programming and offers workshops throughout the year for school aged children, seniors and those of varying abilities.

Composting, mulching, water conservation and xeriscaping are a few of the garden's environmentally friendly practices. 

The Mosaic Sculpture Wall on the side of the central utility shed was another fundraiser. 

It was developed under the leadership of Goldie Sherman, a ceramic artist, Katrin Wolters a stained glass artist and artist Barbara Guy Long

The public was given the opportunity to sponsor a ceramic tile for $20.

The health and vigour of the plants in these raised beds speaks to their being lovingly tended.

What can you take away from Guelph's Enabling Garden?

The uplifting belief that a group of civic-minded volunteers can come together to create a wonderful outdoor space that has a positive and far reaching impact on the community as a whole.

Chair, Trevor Barton tells me that, "This special place has evolved into a dynamic destination point that provides over 14,000 clients and volunteers of all abilities and ages the opportunity to share in the joy of gardening each year."

More Information and Links:

The Enabling Garden is located in Riverside Park in the city of Guelph, Ontario. Check the website for spring workshops, volunteer opportunities and if you wish to visit, you can find directions here.

Watch a slide show on the Enabling Garden.


  1. Jennifer this is dear to my heart as I managed a extended care facility garden for several years. It was a social place enjoyed by residents, families and staff. We had a fire pit and would cook hot dogs for supper-even the frailest resident was helped to hold their own stick in the fire. The night staff loved this activity as everyone slept so well afterwards. Sadly I've just heard our about to open new facility does not have a budget for a garden. More fundraising in my future I think.

  2. This garden has warmed my soul on a cold winter day here. What an amazing example of bringing people together through the garden. And the healing component of the plants you listed is just fantastic! Bravo to the masterminds behind creating such a space for people to come and enjoy! Truly beautiful!!! Nicole xo

  3. I love the design of this place - such a good idea for a community garden and somewhere to sit and meditate on all that beauty.

  4. What a truly wonderful place with stunning planting too. It must be so relaxing, being able to sit by the river in in such beautiful surroundings, I'm sure everyone must benefit from a visit.

  5. What a wonderful idea! The result is such a beautiful garden, and I'm sure residents of the town as well as visitors appreciate this colorful oasis as a place to sit and enjoy. Are the raised beds planted by different groups? Even more of a reason for people to take pride in this lovely garden.

    1. I am not certain exactly how the raised beds are awarded each spring, but will see if I can find out. I did notice that each bed had a distinct character and unique group of plants. Each raised bed seemed to be the work of different individuals and/or groups. I will post more when I find out the answer to your question.

  6. I have seen the garden but did not know how it came about. Thank you for telling us. Your photos are so vivid - they bring out the very best in the garden.

  7. Just love this post. Gardens / Parks are and should always be about "People. Lots of people." enjoying beauty, tranquility, friendship.

    All the best Jan

  8. This is so fantastic, such a great, wonderful project that speaks to a community! We all need more of these types of gardens

  9. It's true- this garden is loved by people, because to create it was needed much work, soul and desire. I like your photo of Echinacea and yellow Cup Flowers, they look nice near the water fall.

  10. A lovely garden - it is so inviting, and I would happily sit there for a very long time. It doesn't have the feel of a public garden, it feels quite personal. The planting is lovely too.

  11. What an inspiring post, it just shows what can be achieved doesn't it. I absolutely loved the garden, the plantings are

  12. I would walk through it every day!!!!!!

  13. Though I am resigned to the fact of growing older, I am not happy about it, but doing so with access to a garden like this might make it easier.

  14. This is a gorgeous garden and those are beautiful photos. I want to go sit there and enjoy a cup of tea.

  15. Jennifer this is exactly how gardens should and could be designed for everyone....I love, love, love this.


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