Manitoba History: The Greening of the West: Horticulture on the Canadian Prairies, 1870-1930

by Lyle Dick
Parks Canada, Victoria, BC

Number 31, Spring 1996

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The year 1870, pivotal in so many aspects of Manitoba’s history, was decisive to the future development of horticulture in the West. With the creation of the first of the prairie provinces, early traditions of small-scale gardening for subsistence were quickly dwarfed by the expansion of horticultural practice into numerous spheres of life. No longer solely an agricultural pursuit, horticulture became imbued with a wide range of social, educational, and recreational objectives. It became a vehicle for the extension of science into everyday life, for the beautification of urban and rural landscapes, even for the inculcation of moral and political values.

Previously, various forms of horticulture had been practised by the prairies’ pre-Confederation populations. As early as 500 years before the present, pre-contact Aboriginal Peoples cultivated corn at Lockport and other sites in southern Manitoba. Plains Native cultures also developed a wide-ranging knowledge of the properties of numerous plants, from which they manufactured medicines and material goods. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European fur traders planted gardens at posts across the prairies, while Métis residents and the Selkirk colonists tended both gardens and field crops at Red River. With the exception of produce at some of the post gardens, these early horticultural and farming activities were oriented to local food production and self-sufficiency.

Between 1870 and 1930 the rapid development of horticulture supported the establishment of a new middle-class society in Western Canada. Governments, agricultural colleges, horticultural societies, and community farm organizations promoted vegetable, flower and tree culture as important adjuncts to the dominant cereal grain economy established in this period. What was noteworthy about the post-1870 period was the immense scale of horticultural activity and its systematic promotion in support of sustained settlement by Euro-North Americans and Europeans.

Early horticultural efforts after Confederation often focused on tree culture in both Manitoba and the North-West Territories (after 1905, Saskatchewan and Alberta). In this vast, often sparsely treed region, settlers planted trees for a variety of reasons, including aesthetic enhancement, protection of their farmsteads from wind, and for psychological security.

Farm home and garden of H. D. Friesen near Laird, Saskatchewan, circa 1920.
Source: Saskatchewan Archives Board

Tree culture also enabled the creation of farmstead microclimates within which gardens could flourish. Among the earliest groups to plant trees were Mennonites from Ukraine who settled in southern Manitoba after 1874. These newcomers established agricultural street villages, which they lined with cottonwoods transplanted from nearby river banks. In, so doing they demonstrated the viability of tree culture in areas of open prairie. By 1883 Manitoba’s 9,077 farmers were cultivating 120,000 hectares of land, of which 1,400 hectares were devoted to gardens and orchards. The importance of tree culture was officially recognized with the proclamation of Arbor Day in the North-West Territories in 1884, followed by Manitoba in 1886.

In the homesteading era, vegetable gardens were important sources of food to settling farm families while they developed their homesteads into grain, mixed, or stock farms. They were also of economic importance as settlers often sold root crops to local markets to generate cash prior to the establishment of an export wheat economy. Well before the appearance of horticultural societies, vegetable and flower culture was promoted in rural areas through competitions and displays of produce in local agricultural fairs and exhibitions. At these events farm women and men informally shared their knowledge of experiments with assorted species and varieties. Women also disseminated their findings more widely through letters to farm periodicals such as the Nor’-West Farmer, the Farmers’ Advocate (Western Edition), and the Grain Growers’ Guide.

Shelter belts and tree-lined approach, Dominion Experimental Farm, Brandon, circa 1905.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Among the early advocates of horticulture in the West were prairie newspapers and farm journals hoping to promote the settlement of the region. At Battleford, P. G. Laurie, editor of the Saskatchewan Herald and a gardening enthusiast, published numerous articles on the possibilities of successful flower, vegetable, and tree culture, beginning in the late 1870s. Regional agricultural journals and local newspapers carried regular features on gardening and forestry, including advice on the cultivation of particular plants and recommended varieties. These and other periodicals often published testimonials by farmers attempting to dispel notions that particular species could not be grown successfully in the region.

During the 1880s there were a number of early attempts to organize horticultural groups in the West. In 1883, at the suggestion of Rev. W. A. Burman of Griswold, the Manitoba Board of Agriculture formed the Manitoba Forestry and Horticulture Society. Its first objective was to establish a botanical garden as a “convincing ground” for demonstrating the west’s horticultural potential. The society died in infancy but the following year Winnipeg residents formed another organization to exhibit fruits, vegetables and flowers. In 1887 a Manitoba Floral Association sponsored a flower show, but this group, like its other early counterparts, soon disbanded.

By the 1890s the development of a core of market gardeners, nursery owners, and professional horticulturists at the Dominion experimental farms provided a more promising base for organizational activity. In 1895 Winnipeg-area market gardeners initiated the Manitoba Horticultural Society, which amateurs were soon also invited to join. The members, deciding to broaden the organization’s scope, changed its name to the Western Horticultural Society in 1898. The society’s ambitious objective was to promote horticulture across the prairie region. To this end, annual meetings were convened at which papers on a wide variety of horticultural topics were read and subsequently published.

In 1905, after the organization of the western provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, the society continued under the name of the Manitoba Horticultural and Forestry Association. The Association provided aggressive leadership in the field for the balance of the settlement era. Expanding the annual report to a monthly publication in 1914, it hosted a series of flower shows, including a huge exhibition in 1902 featuring 2,000 exhibits. It also distributed hardy fruit and ornamental varieties and annually published a revised list of recommended trees, shrubs, fruits and vines. The Manitoba government assisted through financial grants to the society’s various publications.

Alongside their provincial counterparts, local associations also played a role in promoting horticulture. The Brandon Horticultural and Western Forestry Association, the oldest surviving horticultural society on the prairies, was founded in 1893. In 1896 the local Ladies’ Aid founded Saskatchewan’s first local horticultural society at Regina. It was soon followed by a larger regional body, the Assiniboia Horticultural Society, a forerunner of the eventual Saskatchewan association. Alberta’s first horticultural society was organized at Calgary in 1907. From these beginnings nearly 50 such societies were in operation across the prairies by 1930.

The commercial garden industry also provided an important stimulus to horticulture in the period. On the outskirts of major cities market gardens were established to provide produce for the west’s burgeoning urban population. Winnipeg’s early market gardeners included Victor Mager, who was operating a commercial garden by 1873 and J. P. Haarsma, who arrived in 1880. By the 1920s hundreds of market gardeners, many of Polish or Ukrainian origin, were operating between Winnipeg and Selkirk.

Elm trees lining a Winnipeg street, circa 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In addition to producing for local markets, the commercial gardeners aided horticultural development by testing vegetable varieties provided by the experimental farms and agricultural colleges. Some gardeners developed their own strains and showed prize-winning produce at local and even international shows. For example, Klaas de Jong, a Winnipeg-area gardener, won the United States cauliflower contest at Cleveland in 1926. The Winnipeg gardeners also found markets for their root crops and cabbages in the United States and the other prairie provinces, a development that retarded commercial gardening in Saskatchewan. After 1900 High Wo and other Chinese gardeners near Calgary began producing for that city’s market, while Edmonton’s market garden industry began in 1907. In all prairie cities both working and middle class families tended kitchen gardens for domestic use.

Klaas de Jong with cabbages weighing 34 and 35 pounds.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Martha Knapp Collection

On a grander scale, horticulture assumed a central role in urban beautification efforts around 1900. Urban landscape conventions of grand, tree-lined boulevards and large-scale parks emulated the fashions of Eastern North America and Europe. They expressed the aspirations of the Anglo-Canadian business class to re-create an Anglo-Saxon imperial presence in the new capital cites of the West. Here again, Winnipeg, the prairies’ first major metropolis, led the way. Initial activity was confined to tree planting along the streets and private grounds of middle class neighbourhoods. Winnipeg’s early real estate developers dedicated some tracts for parks but these soon disappeared when the early 1880s boom made it more profitable to sub-divide and sell these lands for residential construction.

Civic beautification became entrenched in the 1890s when business leaders and urban reformers pressured city authorities to introduce urban parks and a coordinated approach to boulevard planting. Between 1893 and 1914, twenty-seven civic and three private parks were established within the city of Winnipeg. The prototypes for these parks and their counterparts in other prairie cities were usually a combination of English picturesque and formal Victorian landscaping conventions, and functioned to inculcate the British connection in the emerging prairie society. One of the most remarkable examples of’ urban landscape development was Regina’s Wascana Park. With Saskatchewan’s accession to provincial status in 1905, the new province’s leaders sought a suitable home for the legislature, and chose a 168 acre site adjacent to a reservoir formed by the damming of Wascance Creek. The prominent landscape architect Frederick G. Todd of Montreal was commissioned to develop a site plan, which proved an elaborate vehicle for the installation of a wide range of plant material. Between 1908 and 1912, under the direction of the provincial gardener George Watt, more than 100,000 trees and shrubs were transplanted from nurseries in Europe and North America.

Following completion of the legislative building in 1912, the province engaged the British civic planner Thomas Mawson to complete the plan for Wascana Park. Mawson proposed to convert the semi-arid capital into a “garden city” with connected zones of parkland, a belt of woodlands around the perimeter, and a parkway of woodland and landscaped gardens running the length of Wascana Lake. Mawson’s elaborate Palladian scheme was implemented only on the grounds surrounding the legislative building. Here, the elaborate system of formal carpet beds and hedges provided an impressive demonstration of the potential of horticulture within the Palliser Triangle—when supported by a major engineering project and governmental investment.

The systematic horticultural development of rural areas was an ancillary goal of Dominion experimental farms in the settlement period. The Dominion government, whose National Policy initiated a coordinated program of immigration, railroad construction, and settlement on the prairies, viewed forestry and horticulture, as well as field crops, as essential to sustained settlement. Accordingly, federal authorities established experimental farms at Brandon, Manitoba and Indian Head, Saskatchewan, in the late 1880s. In addition to cereal grain and livestock trials, the farms tested a wide variety of tree and plant material originating in central Canada, the northern United States, and Eurasia. In Alberta the first federal agricultural research station was established at Lethbridge in 1906. Its experimental work included comparative tests on both irrigated and non-irrigated land to determine the potential for cultivating a broad range of plant material within the dry belt. In 1915 the Dominion government established the first prairie research station devoted primarily to horticulture, at Morden, Manitoba. Its staff carried out extensive trials in small fruits, trees, vegetables, and ornamentals, and disseminated the results to the farm community.

An early role of the experimental farms was the promotion of tree shelterbelt plantations on farmsteads to create microclimates for garden and fruit culture. Between 1886 and 1890 the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa shipped about 500,000 young trees to the prairies for distribution to farmers. While many of these trees did not survive, they provided an empirical basis for determining suitable varieties for prairie tree culture. To expand its promotion of farmstead shelterbelts, the federal government in 1903 established a separate Dominion Tree Nursery at Indian Head as the basis for a large-scale distribution program. In 1914 a second tree nursery was established at Sutherland, Saskatchewan, specifically to encourage farmers to expand their plantations to comprise field shelterbelts as well as farmstead windbreaks. Under the general direction of Norman M. Ross and his successors, the two federal nurseries distributed and supervised the planting of 145 million trees by more than 100,000 farmers between 1901 and 1935.

School gardens, Strathcona School, Winnipeg.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Sisler Collection

The influence of the federal programs was demonstrated by the example of the farm home of W. R. Motherwell near Abernethy, Saskatchewan. Homesteading on the second prairie level near the edge of the Palliser Triangle, Motherwell realized that only through a scientific approach could his horticultural endeavours succeed. Collaborating with the superintendents of the Indian Head experimental farm and Dominion tree nursery, Motherwell achieved his desired aesthetic through ecological engineering. He divided his grounds into four quadrants according to function: house, garden, barnyard, and dugout or water supply. The showpiece house quadrant featured assorted tree plantations, a hedge-rimmed lawn/tennis court, flowering shrubs, and carpet beds. To protect the grounds from parching northwest winds in summer and to help create micro-climates to foster plant growth, he planted a network of tree shelterbelts along the periphery. By his success, Motherwell demonstrated the potential of scientific horticulture to overcome the climatic obstacles of the region.

Provincial government agencies, too, contributed to horticultural development during the prairies’ settlement era. In the provincial sphere, horticultural activity was largely carried out under the auspices of the agricultural colleges in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton. When the Manitoba Agricultural College was founded in 1906, F. W. Brodrick, a graduate of the Ontario Agricultural College, was hired to teach horticulture and forestry. Brodrick was heavily involved in extension work, including the organizing of a travelling demonstration school and other short courses, and establishing several demonstration orchards. At the Saskatchewan College of Agriculture, horticulture was initially overshadowed by the Indian Head nursery’s prominent role in the province, although horticultural instruction began in 1920. Under the headship of C. J. Patterson after 1921, the Department of Horticulture focused on fruit experimentation as well as extension work. Horticultural instruction at the University of Alberta dates from 1915, the year in which the College of Agriculture was founded. It was the first specialized field of agriculture at the college, and fruit and vegetable gardening instruction commenced in 1916. During the first 20 years, George Harcourt, the faculty horticulturist, established campus test plots for fruits, vegetables and ornamentals and published numerous extension bulletins.

Another focus of government activity in this period was the school gardening movement. Deriving from nature study programs of the late 19th century, school gardening was being actively promoted by horticultural societies in central Canada by 1900. With the passage of the federal Agricultural Instruction Act in 1913, grants were allotted to the provinces to promote school gardens and other activities. By 1915 more than 400 school gardens were reported in Manitoba alone.

By this time, government authorities began to see in the school gardens the potential to use horticulture to build patriotism and strengthen national unity. During the First World War, school children were exhorted to grow vegetables to support the war effort. Concurrently, writers in the agricultural press promoted the use of school gardens as a means of “Canadianizing the foreign born.” Through these campaigns, the promoters of the school gardens demonstrated the power of such innocuous activities as gardening to support ideological or political objectives.

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) played a supporting role in promoting western tree and flower culture in the settlement era. As the principal corporate agency of land disposal on the prairies, the CPR had a strong interest in promoting settlement through horticulture. By 1907 the company had established two early nurseries—one at Springfield, Manitoba devoted to ornamental production, and another at Wolseley, Saskatchewan for the propagation of tree, shrub, and perennial stock. In 1908 the company organized a forestry department to administer its parks and gardens and to advise officials in the planting of railway gardens and windbreaks along its rail lines.

The CPR also practised tree culture at ten experimental farms in its two major irrigation blocks in southern Alberta, particularly at Strathmore. Between 1912 and 1918 the company began propagating nursery stock at Brooks, Alberta, on the site of the present Provincial Horticultural Station. Willow stock was produced for ripraping the banks of irrigation ditches, and willow, poplar and box elder seedlings were distributed to farmers for shelterbelt use. The scope of horticultural work was greatly expanded after 1918 when Augustus (Gus) Griffin assumed the position of CPR superintendent of Operations and Maintenance for the Eastern Irrigation District, and carried out extensive horticultural experimentation.

Smaller nurseries and seed houses also contributed to horticultural research and propagation alongside their Do-minion and CPR counterparts. One of the earliest nursery operators was A. P. Stevenson of Morden. When he began planting his orchard in 1874 it was reported to be the first on the prairies. For nearly 50 years Stevenson specialized in the seed selection and culture of a wide variety of fruit species and varieties, chiefly apples and plums. Another influential early nursery was Patmore’s of Brandon, established in 1883 and purchased by H. L. Patmore in 1889. After 1900 Patmore set up a second nursery in Saskatoon, and the two outlets distributed all mariner of plant material across the region. Among the competing seed houses, the Steele-Briggs Seed Company in Winnipeg (a branch of the Toronto company) and Mackenzie’s Seeds of Brandon were also prominent.

Perhaps the prairies’ most famous horticulturist was Frank L. Skinner who settled near Roblin, Manitoba in 1895 and subsequently established a nursery at Dropmore. Skinner began to assemble a large array of seeds to show settlers that flowers could be successfully cultivated even in northern areas with short growing seasons. He also imported hardy free stock from northern countries such as Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, and introduced numerous rose varieties that could survive western Canada’s harsh winters.

F. L. Skinner, circa 1932.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Across the prairies, the empirical observations of many dedicated practitioners established the viability of all manner of plant material in different climatic zones. An out-standing example was the work of Seager Wheeler of Rosthem, in central Saskatchewan. In addition to his well-known work in cereal grain varieties, Wheeler experimented with a broad range of fruits, including apples, plums, and cherries, along with raspberries, currants and grapes. Wheeler also tested many varieties of vegetables, and flowers, and trees, sharing his findings with the experimental farms and the wider public. Also of note was the career of Georges Bugnet in north-central Alberta, who became renowned for his successful trials with small fruits and shrubs.

By 1930 the accumulated results of contributions by individuals, both amateur and professional, governments, colleges, nursery operators and horticultural organizations were evident in the verdant character of many prairie cities and towns as well as rural landscapes. In the more wealthy urban neighbourhoods, and on a few prosperous farms, landscape gardening and floriculture were sometimes practised on a grand scale, as the prairies’ new business and middle classes sought to emulate the garden fashions of Europe and Eastern North America. In most rural areas and urban neighbourhoods, much more modest planting conventions were pursued. Settlers grew vegetables as important and inexpensive additions to diet. In the cities, working class women also tended gardens to feed their families and planted flowers to make their often crowded surroundings more liveable. Collectively, these assorted participants demonstrated the potential for cultivating a wide range of plant material in the region. While horticulture carried different meanings for its various practitioners, few inhabitants of the region were not touched by its efflorescence in this formative era of Western development.

Ornamental hedge plots, Dominion Experimental Farm, Morden, 1929.
Source: Agriculture Canada

Source Materials on Prairie Horticultural History

Much of the information in this article was obtained in the agricultural press of the settlement era, including the Nor’-West Farmer, the Farmers’ Advocate (Western Edition), and the Grain Growers’ Guide; in articles in the Western Canadian Horticultural Society Reports, the Manitoba Horticulturist; bulletins of the Faculties of Agriculture at the Universities of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta; and publications of the federal experimental farms at Brandon, Indian Head, Lethbridge, and Morden. The extensive Horticultural Societies collection at the Saskatchewan Archives Board in Regina was also consulted. For further reference, readers might wish to consult such general sources as Edwinna von Baeyer, Rhetoric and Roses: A History of Canadian Gardening (Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1984), Ronald Rees, New and Naked Land: Making the Prairies Home (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1988), and P. J. Peters, A Century of Horticulture in Manitoba, 1880-1980 (Altona, Manitoba: Friesen Printers, 1988).

Page revised: 22 October 2011