Sheridan Nurseries and the Art of Gardening in Canada



J.E.H. MacDonald. Cover design for Sheridan Nurseries catalogue (1929)

In the run-up to the gift-giving season, buying a book on gardening history is perfectly natural. You could be forgiven, however, for wondering about the relevance of a centenary history of Sheridan Nurseries of Ontario to art history in general, and to the National Gallery of Canada’s current exhibition Artists, Architects and Artisans, in particular. In fact, there are several points of connection.

The founders of Sheridan Nurseries—Howard and Lorrie Dunington-Grubb—were the first, and among the most influential, landscape architects in Canada. They interacted with Canadian artists at several junctures: most notably with Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald, who designed covers for several of the Sheridan plant catalogues, but also with sculptors such as Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, who created sculptures for some of the Sheridan garden designs.

Sadly, only a few of the original Beaux Arts garden designs by the Dunington-Grubbs have survived. These include the Oakes Garden Theatre at Niagara Falls, Gage Park in the city of Hamilton, and the gardens at Parkwood in Oshawa. In more recent times, however, Sheridan Nurseries has continued its dialogue with artists through the Artists’ Gardens program at Harbourfront in Toronto. 

The Sheridan Nurseries story is also a broader narrative reflecting the development of gardening as a middle-class pastime in Canada. One of the ironies of the Nurseries’ history is that the name Sheridan was taken from a hamlet between Toronto and Oakville, which eventually fell victim to the same rampant postwar suburbanization that was key to their success. 

It’s a surprise to learn just how few ornamental plants existed in Canada when Sheridan opened its doors in 1913, and how much skill and sheer hard slog it took to select, propagate and popularize trees, shrubs and perennials that could cope with Canadian winters. For example, the kind of architectural hedge-making and topiary effects which the Dunington-Grubbs absorbed from British mentors such as Gertrude Jekyll necessitated the nurturing of Korean boxwood ("hardy, even in Manitoba"), in place of the less robust English variety. Chrysanthemums were another breakthrough plant for Sheridan after 1940, with one prized exemplar being baptized Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Presumably this did not turn out to be a long-term favourite at the Chinese consulate and, if there was a subsequent flower named for Madame Mao, the book is tactfully silent about it.

The book contains many references to members of the company’s long-serving and hardworking staff—perhaps a few too many. This does, however, allow the book to be read as social history as well, through the memories of the many individuals—often recent immigrants from Denmark, Germany and other countries, as well as Japanese Canadian internees during World War II—who contributed to the company's horticultural progress.

There are also some nice anecdotes along the way. At the 1927 opening of Gage Park, for example, the signal to switch on the fountain was supposed to be the waving of a handkerchief. Unfortunately, one of the dignitaries in attendance happened to blow his or her nose at the wrong moment, with the result that they all got a soaking.

The book Sheridan Nurseries: One Hundred Years of People, Plans and Plants is available at the NGC Bookstore. To place an order, or for more information, please call 1-855-202-4568.

The exhibition Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918 is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 2 February 2014.

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