People passionate about nature

History of Our Natural Garden Tour

by Dianne Beaven, Donna Danyluk and Julia Schoen

For more photos of our Garden Tours from over the years see the gallery at the end of the article. Jump to gallery. 

The idea for a Nature Manitoba Garden Tour sprouted from a chance conversation between two Nature Manitoba members, Nancy Cullen and Julia Schoen, at a Grey Hares event in 1999. They enlisted the help of two other Nature Manitoba gardening enthusiasts, Donna Danyluk and Marilyn Latta, and plans were made for “Our Natural Garden Tour” in 2000. It would be a fund-raising project to celebrate the new Millennium. What better fit for an organization of People Passionate About Nature than to host a garden tour for People Passionate About Gardens?

Above: photo by Dianne Beaven

During the nineteen tours Nature Manitoba has held so far, over 150 gardens from almost every area of Winnipeg have been showcased, representing an amazing diversity of styles. We’ve featured everything from grand estates to small inner-city yards, from more manicured landscapes to wild and natural gardens that include native prairie and woodland plantings.

In keeping with Nature Manitoba’s “green approach” to outdoor recreation, the 8 or 9 gardens chosen for our self-guided tour are in close proximity to each other. This helps reduce travel and allows sufficient time for all gardens to be visited between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Where gardens are close enough, tour-goers can drive to the neighbourhood and walk from one garden to the other. Others choose to ride their bicycles to the gardens. A colourful garden tour ticket includes a description of each of the gardens, as well as addresses and directions.

Above: Julia posing in her garden with Monarch garden marker (by Donna Danyluk)

For the first fourteen years, organizing the tour was a one-woman show in the hands of Julia Schoen. In 2012, Julia took a year off to reassess the planning and delivery of the garden tour. She returned to organize the 2013 and 2014 tours, this time with the help of Dianne Beaven and Donna Danyluk. Julia worked her usual magic, and then, after a job well done, she retired…well, almost. She continues to satisfy her “garden-tour bug” by organizing and leading an annual “cycle tour” of several gardens for the Grey Hares, a popular mid-July outing that began in 2002.

Above: Grey Hares garden cycle tour (by Charlie Thomsen)

In 2014, the future of “Our Natural Garden Tour” was uncertain. But a few key people (who had become quite attached to the tour) stepped up to form a committee to help carry on the tradition. Planning began for 2015 under the capable direction of Nature Manitoba member Lea Stogdale, who agreed to chair the committee for the “bridge year.” Then, in 2016 Nature Manitoba was fortunate to have Joe Leven, a Nature Manitoba board member, step forward and volunteer for the next four years.

In addition to maintaining the high standards of the tour, Joe introduced two new features to enhance the experience of tour-goers. Refreshments were available at the community gardens starting in 2016, and a popular plant sale (with plants donated by the gardeners as well as Nature Manitoba members) was added in 2018 and 2019 to help boost the fund-raising effort of the tour. With few expenses cutting into the revenue from ticket sales, since 2000 the Garden Tour has raised close to $100,000 to support Nature Manitoba’s programs.

Above: Plant Sale 2019 at Riel House

Above: Plant sale 2019 at Riel House

Promotion of “Our Natural Garden Tour” has taken many forms over the years, from ads and announcements in various media, to colourful posters, information tables at garden centres and farmer’s markets. There have even been appearances on phone-in radio shows about gardening. Our best advertising, though, continues to be plain old word-of-mouth, resulting from the positive experiences of tour-goers!

Weather gods on our side

Nature Manitoba’s garden tour has enjoyed incredibly good weather over the years, with one memorable exception. The inaugural tour in 2000 became known for “10 Famous Days” as the rains continued day and night in the two weeks leading up to the tour. One of the gardeners remembers going outside each morning at 5 a.m. to carry pails of water from her yard in the hope of saving her plants. As if on order, the day of the tour was pleasantly sunny and dry. Another year, the forecasted rain held off until 4:10 p.m., only 10 minutes after the tour had concluded. Talk about timing!

Above: Beautiful weather and a beautiful garden (by John Tinkler)

Our first three tours were held in late June, then the tour date was shifted to late July in order to show gardens further along in the growing season. But, with our increasingly hot summers, in 2013 the decision was made to change the date to early July, as gardeners had become concerned that their gardens would be past their prime later in the summer. The current spot on the calendar also meshes nicely with the other major garden tours that are held in Winnipeg each summer.

The Gardeners’ Experience

For many years, Julia hosted an evening get-together of the gardeners and key volunteers in November prior to the tour to help them enter the spirit of the event and learn what to expect. Many go to extraordinary lengths to enhance what is already beautiful in their gardens by adding special touches. The gardeners are of course very proud of their accomplishments, and they are especially interested in seeing what the other gardeners have done. To enable this, two evenings are selected during the week before the tour day so gardeners and volunteers can visit all the other gardens.

These “pre-tours” are evenings full of gardening camaraderie and anticipation of the main event, and they generate their own special memories. On one pre-tour in 2013 we visited a gorgeous acreage, which was loved by all. The husband of one of the gardeners, while he liked the garden, discovered a very large garage on the property and was absolutely thrilled when the gardener offered him a garage tour! During another pre-tour in 2019, a vast amount of rain came down and drenched those participating but even that did not discourage them. Thanks to many umbrellas and rain jackets, not one garden visit was cut short that evening.

Above: A garden full of visitors, 2009 (by Julia Schoen)

With very few exceptions, the gardeners are also hosts in their gardens on the day of the tour, meeting and greeting 300 to 400 appreciative visitors. (Twice, in 2008 and 2009, over 500 tickets were sold!) After weeks of work and anticipation, the day of the tour always seems to fly by. Some gardeners have been so engrossed with talking to visitors, they missed their lunch! Tour-goers learn a great deal from speaking with the gardeners, many of whom have years of experience. It is particularly helpful when the gardener or a knowledgeable volunteer is available to name plants and provide information on growing conditions, garden bed or pathway construction, and other landscaping tips. While many visitors are content to just soak in the unique ambience of each garden, others are detail oriented — asking questions, taking notes and photos, their minds full of dreams and plans for revamping their own gardens!

Above: Garden inspiration comes from beautiful plantings...(by Julia Schoen)

Above: ...unique structures and design...(by Tim Evans)

Above: ...and the fun details that make a garden special. (by Julia Schoen)

For the years that Julia organized the tour, she also hosted a potluck dinner about a week after the tour, which brought together gardeners, their partners, and volunteers for a post-event celebration. As with the pre-tours, she found it gratifying to see the gardeners interacting with each other — the gathering together of a group of interesting and creative people who had probably not known each other before the tour, but they all had the “gardening bug” and were happy to share information and experiences. Julia fondly remembers the 2001 potluck, when all the gardeners AND all their partners showed up. The especially large group would normally have been entertained outside in her spacious backyard garden, but rain forced a retreat to a much smaller space indoors. This did not dampen the spirit of the evening!

Community Spirit

In 2003 the tour began to feature a community garden each year (except 2007). The first community garden was Montrose School and Park, which was developed by students from the school and volunteers from the community as an outdoor learning area. The Lake Albrin Bay Community Park in Waverley Heights (2004) was featured as an example of a City of Winnipeg Adopt-a-Park project. The person behind the creation of this park was someone whose own garden on the same street was also part of the tour that year. She is an example of the kind of dedicated volunteer we’ve been lucky to have involved with our tour over the years.

Lyndale Drive Friendship Garden (2005) was our smallest community garden, and was used as a backdrop to display some unique pieces of garden sculpture. The River East Millenium Gardens (2006), with their many raised beds, showed how gardening can be made easier for the over-55 residents from the nearby apartment complexes. Young Street Spirit Park (2008) is truly for the neighbourhood, encouraging families to plant and harvest. This garden also featured medicinal plants and an area for community composting. Pollock Island in St. Norbert (2009), 16 acres of river bottom forest at the forks of the Red and La Salle Rivers, was the largest and wildest of our community gardens. The St. Amant Gardens were designed to offer a healing haven for residents and their families. When featured on Nature Manitoba’s 2010 tour, these gardens were the location for an educational display promoting organic lawn care, hosted by volunteers from the Manitoba Eco-network.

Above: Organic lawn care display, 2010 (by Julia Schoen)

In 2011, the unique landscape design of the Carol Shields’ Memorial Labyrinth in King’s Park was featured as our community garden. Two volunteers (who were gardeners themselves from previous tours) offered to look after visitors to the Labyrinth. They realized that some of the older tour-goers might have difficulty walking from the parking lot to the Labyrinth, so they made arrangements for a motorized shuttle to carry people back and forth. Visitors enjoyed the ride and appreciated the special effort of the volunteers who went the extra mile to ensure everyone could participate.

In 2013 Fort Whyte Alive Demonstration Gardens were the designated community garden. Their Naturescape program certifies gardens which have been transformed into habitat for Manitoba flora and fauna by incorporating elements that provide food, water, shelter, and space. Several of the gardens on Nature Manitoba tours have been certified as “naturescapes”.

Above: Fort Whyte gardens (by Annette Bell)

Enderton Park, more fondly known as Peanut Park, featured in 2014 and 2018, is a wonderful project initiated by residents of Crescentwood (“Friends of Peanut Park”) to restore and revitalize this small park with tree plantings and many garden beds. Their efforts have certainly paid off, creating an inviting green space that is a real asset to the neighbourhood. In 2018, it was the perfect shady venue (on what was a very hot July day) for our first plant sale, which turned out to be both popular and profitable. A steady stream of customers kept the plant sale volunteers hopping all day, until the last plant was sold.

Other memorable community gardens on our tour were Whyte Ridge Community Butterfly Garden in 2015 (where Simone Allard, author of Manitoba Butterflies: A Field Guide, volunteered to help answer questions about butterfly-friendly plants); Living Prairie Museum in 2016 (where refreshments were available for the first time for tour-goers); Bunn’s Creek Centennial Park in 2017 (featuring forested trails along a meandering creek); and Riel House in 2019 (a Parks Canada Historic Site in St. Vital and the site of our second plant sale).

Some stories gathered over the years

Each year has brought different challenges for organizers and gardeners alike. One year a gardener found her garden invaded by ants the week before the tour. She discovered that spreading coffee grounds would dispense with the ants and sure enough, by the day of the tour, her garden was free from these critters.

Another gardener had recently sold his house but was able to postpone the possession date until midnight following the tour. What dedication! He hosted visitors to his garden during the day while hurrying back to his new home to ensure that plans for a dinner that evening were going well. Then after a full day he entertained approximately 30 people, and still had enough strength to deliver the key to the new owner to meet the midnight deadline.

Above: Often the gardens are the result of decades of hard work (by Charlotte Tataryn)

Another year we had a gardener withdraw at the last minute. A replacement was found in the nick of time when one of the other gardeners already on the tour came to the rescue! She was able to connect us to another garden in the neighbourhood that she had recently designed.

Other great stories have played out during the past nineteen years, many illustrating the spirit of our tour. There were the two neighbours, both of whom were participating in the tour, who decided to plant the boulevard in front of their homes, complete with bridges to cross from the curb to the sidewalk. This produced an amazing effect.

The tour has made repeat visits to several gardens over the years in order to show off exciting changes made since their first appearance on tour. Our 2009 tour featured 10 gardens for the 10th anniversary of the tour. This included repeat showings of three gardens from the inaugural tour in 2000, each belonging to three of the original planners of the tour, Julia Schoen, Marilyn Latta, and Donna Danyluk.

Above: Julia's garden (by Julia Schoen)

Above: Donna's Garden (by Donna Danyluk)

Above: Marilyn's Garden (by Marilyn Latta)

On the morning after the 2009 tour, Julia looked out into her backyard to see a familiar couple making their way around her yard. She went out to greet them, and found an absent-minded professor and his wife who believed they had the right day for the tour. When told they were a day late, they were most apologetic, and, of course, disappointed. Later, Julia contacted all the gardeners and set up a mini-tour for the wayward couple and a few others who had bought tickets but were not able to attend on the day of the tour. It’s this level of customer service that has made our garden tour so popular!

For several years, an eager group of residents from a Winnipeg senior’s home travelled by bus from garden to garden. One gardener liked to recount the story of watching a group of these seniors, most using walkers, making their way single file along a pathway in her yard. They soon discovered they were headed towards a dead end. In unison, and without hesitation, they lifted their walkers, reversed their direction and walked back along the path. Later it was learned that one of the ladies was 101 years old!

One gardener who donated many volunteer hours to the Montrose School and Park Gardens, and had a wonderful garden around her own home, also raised Monarch butterflies on her dining room table. Her “butterfly farm” produced 50 butterflies that year, which were then released into the community — an appropriate connection, as the Monarch butterfly has been the symbol of our tour. Handmade wooden Monarch yard markers were used for many years to identify the gardens on our tour, and many gardeners have kept theirs as a memento.

With a little help from our friends

Nature Manitoba has been very fortunate in having a generous number of ticket vendors who have helped to make the garden tour a financial success. Some participated for one year only because of the area of the city in which the tour was hosted. Others, the majority of which are garden centres such as Lacoste Garden Centre, St. Mary’s Garden Centre, Shelmerdine Nurseries and Garden Centre, Schriemer’s Flower and Garden, Jensen’s Nursery and Garden Centre, and St. Leon Gardens, as well as other outlets such as Feasey Chiropractic and Wellness Centre, McNally Robinson Booksellers, and Preferred Perch, have sold our tickets year after year. We are very grateful for their support of our tour!

In addition to the individuals mentioned in this article who have been involved with organization of the tour, there have been countless volunteers who have helped out in so many ways over the years, whether by helping with the plant sale and refreshments, putting up posters, selling tickets, or assisting in the gardens on tour day. The Nature Manitoba office staff have helped with promoting the tour and with the financial aspects. To all of you, a big thank you – your efforts are so much appreciated!

Covid -19

In the fall of 2019 Tim Evans, an enthusiastic gardener who has been on our tour three times with two different gardens, agreed to take on the organization of the garden tour. He decided to give the tour a new name, “Gardens of Distinction”, and everything was in place for a very special event in 2020 to help celebrate Nature Manitoba’s 100th anniversary. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 the difficult decision was made to postpone the 2020 garden tour until 2021.

Above: Tim's garden (by Tim Evans)

Hopefully Nature Manitoba’s long-running Garden Tour will resume and continue for many years to come. There are many more gorgeous gardens to visit, friendly and generous gardeners and volunteers to meet, and happy memories to be made!

Our Natural Garden Tour Photo Gallery

Photos for this gallery by: Charles Begley, Donna Danyluk, Ted McLachlan, Marilyn Latta, Julia Schoen, John Tinkler, Jens Wrogemann

Click on image below to expand gallery and view full sized images.