Gardens of Canada

The Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture Celebrates 75 Years

Celebrating 75 years in 2011, the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture Lecture Hall and Administration Building
There have been a lot of weeds pulled, roses deadheaded, vegetables harvested and grass mown during seventy-five years of training horticulture students.  But every so often, it’s time to take off the secateurs, put on walking shoes, and take a stroll to really delight in the beauty of a very special garden.  The garden – the home of the Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture.
Hundreds of plants skillfully arranged in containers greet visitors at the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture during the summer to celebrate their 75th anniversary in 2011.
This school, unique in Canada sits on 100-acres (40 hectares) along the Niagara Parkway in Niagara Falls, Ontario and has been the living, teaching campus for more than 600 graduates who now are spread out in parks departments, golf courses, greenhouses and nurseries across Canada and around the globe. In August, the largest ever gathering of graduates returned to Niagara to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the School of Horticulture.  A round of golf, school grounds tours, bbq and lots of alumni stories led to many renewed and new acquaintances during the three-day event.
A beautiful waypoint at the Botanical Gardens, the rose garden fountain.
How did the school get started?
July 10, 1935 was a significant day in the birth of what was to become the Niagara Parks Commission Training School for Apprentice Gardeners. This was the day that the Niagara Parks Commission approved engaging Knut Mattias (K.M.) Broman, a Swedish born, trained landscape architect as a landscape gardener for a period of two years.
The Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture student residence as seen in present day, formerly called The Bothy.
It was at that same meeting that it was suggested to make a botanical garden at Queen Victoria Park adjacent to the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls. And in order to have qualified gardeners for this new botanical garden, a school was launched to train young men to become expert gardeners.  It was on May 8th, 1936 that the Niagara Parks Commission set up the following guidelines …
It is the opinion of The Niagara Parks Commission that expert gardeners should be trained under the direction of the Commission as there is no proper Training School in the province… It is agreed by the Commission that a number of apprentices (not to exceed eight for the present) be engaged to work in the park under the supervision of Mr. Broman, who is to lay out a course.
The old stone house at the Niagara Glen owned by the Commission (known as the old Murray House) is to be prepared as a bothy for the boys during the summer season. In the winter season it is suggested that the boys be housed in the Help’s Quarters of the Park Restaurant. Until other plans are arranged the boys are to be fed at the Park Restaurant.
School of Horticulture Students are required to tend a vegetable garden plot during their second year. The result is innovation, great horticulture, and lots of creativity!

These are some of the guidelines for the first class of gardeners as they arrived at what is now the Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture. And after 600 graduates, 2011 saw an unprecedented gathering of alumni and celebration as the little apprenticeship-style school, along the Niagara Parkway and across from the Niagara Glen, that trained students during a 36 month curriculum turned 75 years old.

The School is run by The Niagara Parks Commission, an Operational Enterprise of the Government of Ontario, that has been charged with managing the land, buildings, and facilities along the Niagara River from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie since 1887 in a completely self-funding manner – without taking any taxpayer dollars.
A living sculpture of a dragon, designed, created and maintained by students at the School of Horticulture greets visitors at the entrance to the rose garden during the summer of 2011.

In the book, Garden School Days, Memoirs from the Early Years (1936-1950) Roland Barnsley and William Snowden, former Superintendents of the School of Horticulture, describe the early thirties in Canada as a time of low morale with a deep economic depression and the somber realization that the great surge of optimism following World War I had shriveled to a very dim and bleak outlook for the country (and world). The need for job creation was a priority. The fortuitous arrival of a chairman (T.B. McQuesten) with enormous vision was a contributing factor to the launching of the School in 1936.

A giant grape vine globe makes a dramatic statement in the entrance garden at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture.

The Early Years

Changing a 100-acre derelict farm into a school of gardening almost overnight was a mighty task that started with K.M. Broman’s trip to Holland in 1936 to order virtually every plant that he could find that might survive in Niagara. His source was the great Dutch nursery, F.J. Grootendorst & Sons in Boskoop. The shipment would turn out to be the largest single shipment of nursery stock ever shipped from Holland up to that date.  Most of the plants were dug from the nursery beds in the spring during January to March and then shipped to the east coast of Canada in April of 1937. From there they travelled by train to Niagara Falls in May. Despite a two month journey, most were in good condition and after being inspected were planted in long nursery rows in their new home. Many would stay in this temporary nursery that stretched north and south from the entrance road for the School for another 18 months before permanent locations were provided.
It is the plants in this Grootendorst shipment that still forms the backbone and many of the most cherished plants on the School grounds even after 75 years.  It is the  spruce vista and hornbeam allée, oriental cedar hedge that surrounds the herb garden, beech hedges opposite the student residence and collection of sycamore maples that feature most prominently from this original 1937 planting.
Surrounded by clipped oriental cedar hedges that were part of the 1937 plant shipment from Holland, the herb garden at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture is full of fascinating plants to discover.

Hugh McCracken, a graduate in the first class in 1939 recalls, “Our first home was a farmhouse, which still stands as the original part of the School. It was called The Bothy, an English term for an apprentice residence. Workmen we were that first summer – carrying out many manual tasks with the aid of pick and shovel, cultivators, Dutch hoes and manure forks. We were even required to break the proverbial rock with sledgehammer in tow. Exercise and fresh air was not in short supply that first year. I am sure any of the students that were at the School in the early days would agree that most of our training was of a practical nature. The spring of 1937 brought with it a tremendous shipment of nursery stock imported from Holland. When this shipment was added to the existing plant material, the Gardening School began to take on the appearance of a place of learning.”

Celebrating the “blue and gold,” the colours of the NPC School of Horticulture, the annual flowers in the rose garden really add a festive spirit to the 75th anniversary celebrations themselves.

Over the years, there have been many changes; the former Murray farmhouse is greatly expanded and not the school residence as well as the addition of a new lecture hall, library and administration building built in 1961, women were first admitted into the program in 1973, and in 1996, North America’s largest butterfly conservatory opened on the grounds. The name became the School of Horticulture (dropping the apprentice gardener’s moniker) in 1959 and the school campus officially became the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens in 1990. Many garden changes have occurred on the 100 acres over 75 years with many more planned as well. Exciting new landscapes have been developed, stone walls and paths built, irrigation systems installed, new ponds and plant collections added – all giving valuable, year-round, “real world” experiences to the first, second and third year students as part of their practical horticulture training.

Located at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden, the Butterfly Conservatory features over 2,000 tropical butterflies flying freely in an enclosed rainforest garden.

The Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, Butterfly Conservatory and School of Horticulture are located along the Niagara Parkway, just a 10 minute drive north of the Falls.

The Botanical Gardens is free of charge, and open seven days a week from dawn to dusk.  There is a charge for parking and the Butterfly Conservatory.
For information about the curriculum, practical training program and admission policy for the School of Horticulture visit
The Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture
P.O. Box 150, Niagara Falls, Ontario L2E 6T2