Three great woodland gardens in Canada

Canadian Travel Destinations: Put Hamilton and Toronto Botanical Gardens and Stanley Park on the list

The Royal Botanical Gardens is a gem in the heart of one of Canada’s most highly populated areas – less than an hour outside of Toronto and about the same distance to the Niagara region and the U.S. border.

The five cultivated garden areas, including the outstanding sunken rock garden and tea house, and its impressive rose and iris collections, get much of the publicity as the gardens come into bloom over the course of the summer. Although these more formal gardens are impressive, it’s the more wild, Woodlands and natural areas of the gardens that are slowly gaining recognition in social media circles.

Maybe it’s the bald eagles, ospreys and massive herons (both Great Blue and Great Whites) that have returned to the area after years of being absent. Maybe it’s the beavers that seem to pose for nature photographers, the coyotes, foxes or friendly chickadees that don’t miss a chance to land on visitors’ outstretched, seed-filled hands. Maybe it’s the massive boardwalks that take you through the heart of marshes, the spring ephemerals that brighten the woodlands in spring, or the spectacular colours of the woodland garden in the fall.

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It’s probably a combination of all of these natural features that are getting the attention of nature lovers looking for an experience in the outdoors, away from the worries of Covid.

If you are looking for more travel destinations, check out my article on Five of the best Woodland Gardens to visit in the United States.

I’m lucky to live just 15 minutes from The Royal Botanical Gardens, or the RBG as locals call it.

A Cherry Tree in bloom at the Royal Botanical Gardens Arboretum, one of several gardens at the southern Ontario tourist destination.

The Royal Botanical Gardens is massive: 5 cultivated Garden areas, 27 kms of nature trails, 2,500 plant species, 2,400 acres of nature sanctuaries and 300 acres of cultivated garden.

Several years ago, I was part of a group of five photographers lucky enough to work with the RBG to create photo cards and posters of its outstanding gardens. In those days, the natural areas were less known but still offered nature photographers and lovers a taste of what was to come.


Today, the “Woodland gardens and nature trails feature more than 27 km of nature trails and include four main trailheads, as well as two canoe launch sites,” the gardens’ website states.

“The 1,100 hectares is dominated by 900 hectares of nature sanctuaries enveloping the western end of Lake Ontario. These lands form a Nodal Park within the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve (UNESCO) and the heart of the Cootes to Escarpment Ecopark System. With more than 750 native plant species, 277 types of migratory birds, 37 mammal species, 14 reptile species, 9 amphibian species and 68 species of Lake Ontario fish, the area is an important contributor to ecosystems that span international borders.”

Here are a few areas to focus on:

The graphic above shows the extensive trail system through the woodland and over marshes via an extensive boardwalk system.

Trail Destinations: Hendrie Valley is home to lots of interesting trails and lookouts! Here are 5 key destinations marked by number on the map above.

1) South pasture swamp: An oasis for endangered species, this spring-fed oxbow pond is home to beaver, muskrat, Virginia rail and wood duck. Work to restore this site began in 1994 as part of Project Paradise.

2) Grindstone Creek: With three pedestrian bridge crossings and a creek-side trail, the valley provides an intimate connection with the creek. Seasonal fish spawning runs include herring and spottail shiner in the spring and salmon in the fall.

3) Snowberry Island: Halfway along the Grindstone Marshes Boardwalk, Snowberry Island sits five metres high in the floodplain. Named after a species of plant that grows there, the island is a block of uneroded creek valley soil called a knoll.

Grindstone Creek Delta: Located at Valley Inn trailhead, it’s both the site of an ambitious restoration project and stop-over point for migratory waterfowl. More than 100,000 Christmas trees form the foundation for the restored river banks of Grindstone Creek — these protect the marsh areas by preventing carp from entering.

An example of the boardwalk through the trails of the Royal Botanical Gardens.

The Royal Botanical Gardens on the Hamilton/Burlington border is truly a weekend travel destination for anyone living within a few hours of the massive gardens. It is truly a family destination with a host of kid-friendly features and activities.

For garden lovers, the RBG is much more than a weekend travel destination. It’s actually an ideal base to explore all that the Niagara Region – featuring wine country, picturesque Niagara-On-The-Lake and the Falls (one-hour away) – and the metropolitan city of Toronto (an hour away in the other direction), has to offer travellers.

The Woodland Walk and Bird Habitat gardens that greet visitors to the Toronto Botanical Gardens and Edward’s Garden in the heart of Toronto.

Toronto Botanical Garden’s Woodland Walk and Bird Habitat

About an hour’s drive down the highway from Hamilton/Burlington’s RBG is Toronto’s own Botanical Gardens and Edward’s Garden, located in the heart of the city.

Here you will find a wonderful Woodland and bird garden introducing you to the much larger and more formal Edwards Gardens operated by the Toronto Botanical Gardens. Edwards Gardens, that sits adjacent to the Toronto Botanical Garden, is a former estate garden featuring perennials and roses on the uplands and wildflowers, rhododendrons and an extensive rockery in the valley. On the upper level of the valley there is also a lovely arboretum beside the children’s Teaching Garden.


The Woodland Garden design combines a native woodland and prairie garden, providing a year-round habitat for birds and other wildlife.

The garden’s roots go back to 2009, when staff together with numerous volunteers and members of the industry came together to begin working on the garden.

Many of the plants are native to the Canadian Carolinian Forest. (see my earlier article on the Carolinian Forest).  The space is an evolving garden, being planted over several years, that will “serve as an outdoor classroom to educate, both passively and actively; to promote sustainability, conservation and biodiversity; and to showcase horticulture.”

A few highlights from the TBG website:

  • This garden invites and welcomes the public and members into the gardens of the Toronto Botanical Garden and Edwards Gardens. It is a reflection of the beauty and gardens that lie beyond the parking areas.

  • The garden helps beautify the typical urban landscape at the intersection at Lawrence and Leslie.

  • Native plants–where possible–have been carefully selected to reflect the Carolinian Forest, providing food and shelter for birds and other wildlife

  • A natural wood chip path leads the visitor from the busy intersection through the dappled shade of the open woodland to the masses of perennials, ornamental grasses and other seasonal plants in the Entry Garden.

Stanley Park is an impressive example of a natural woodland garden.

Stanley Park: Canada’s ultimate woodland garden

I have had the good fortune to spend a day at Vancouver’s spectacular Stanley Park several years ago. It was a misty morning adding to the mystery of this wonderful landscape.

We visited Stanley Park many years ago and I don’t remember much accept that it was one of the highlights of my life and probably, together with a visit to Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C., turned me into a woodland garden enthusiast. There is something about the landscapes of the pacific northwest that you just can’t help but fall in love with.


If you travel to Canada’s far west, try to take in Vancouver Island’s Butchart Gardens. A spectacular 55-acres of sunken gardens boasting 900 plant varieties, 26 greenhouses and 50 gardeners, Butchart has enjoyed more than 100 years as a must-see garden near Victoria, B.C.

Salisbury Woodland Gardens located within the massive Stanley Park is a an attractive green space, planted in the mid 1930’s to serve as a public recreation area as well as shelterbelt for Stanley Park Golf Course. The woodland contains many native and exotic trees and shrubs. Winding footpaths take visitors through the garden over brooks.


The woodland, which has been undergoing renovation since 2006, was designated as a County Biological Heritage Site in 1993 for its epiphytic flora. Wildlife includes birds such as kingfishers, treecreepers and woodpeckers. The site also supports colonies of pipistrelle bats, dragonflies and butterflies such as orange tip and peacock.

In conclusion

The public gardens, as well as the national and provincial parks, and conservation areas in Canada provide visitors with incredible experiences in nature. As Covid winds down and families look to escape either on quick weekend vacations or day visits, these gardens and natural areas offer some of the safest ways to plan a vacation.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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