Reader’s task was to get Calgarians growing.
William Roland Reader arrived in Calgary from England in 1908 and over the following years took the fledgling city’s gardening world by storm. He was a founding member of the Calgary Horticultural Society, wrote numerous articles for the local newspaper and gave countless talks — accompanied by his own hand-coloured slides — about gardening successfully in Calgary’s difficult climate. As parks superintendent from 1913 until 1942 he was responsible for laying the foundations for Calgary’s network of parks, open spaces and tree-lined boulevards.
Reader’s most notable accomplishment, however, was his rock garden. In those days, Calgary’s parks superintendent was provided with a house on the edge of the Union Cemetery in which to live. In 1913 the site was nothing more than a grass-covered, sandy hillside with a house perched on top. The house was fully exposed to the elements and the hillside was a target for erosion. Reader brought in rocks from surrounding areas as well as topsoil and composted manure. Boulders stabilized the slopes, stone paths divided the garden into beds and streams trickled between ponds.
The principles of garden design were applied, but the real purpose of the garden was to test new plants for hardiness. Publications from the time show that early Calgarians grew only about 20 types of perennials. Most trees were still unreliable, and conditions were so harsh that even turf had to be mulched to survive the winter!
The thousands of plant species that he introduced from lands far and wide have become an integral part of people’s lives in this city today. He ordered seeds produced in the world’s more severe climates and collected seeds and plants himself while on mountain hikes. Many plants that we see as “new” to our greenhouses today were in Reader’s garden by the 1930s. He successfully raised Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia), heavenly perfumed Primula marginata, hellebores, plume poppies, Japanese tree lilacs, the creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides) and the prolific purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), now considered a noxious weed. Reader also grew plants that are still rarely seen, such as Adonis vernalis. His extensive plant list contains more than 150 cultivars of bearded iris alone. Words like “magical” and “enchanted” were used to describe his unique property.
Today’s database, containing approximately 4,000 different plants, is compiled from four known versions of a manuscript that presumably would have been published, if it had not been for Reader’s untimely death less than a month after his retirement.
The city of Calgary began rehabilitating Reader’s overgrown and largely abandoned 2.8-acre garden in May 2004. Since the reopening ceremony for Phase 1 of the project in 2006, the pathways and rockeries of the site have been re-established themselves as a destination for visitors of all ages and interests. The second and final phase of the project in 2008 focused on the western slope and on the rehabilitation of the two large ponds in the west garden that treat visitors to cascading waterfalls and a trickling stream. Beds near the ponds have been created to mirror archival photographs. The pond’s edge