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Rock Garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Gateway. Janet Rosenberg & Studio [JRS] led the transformative rejuvenation of this signature garden of the Royal Botanical Gardens [RBG] to expand its footprint and holdings, all the while taking the visitor’s experience into the 21st-century. Although once a former gravel pit, the Rock Garden was originally the centerpiece of an ambitious Depression-era project led by its founder to establish it as the gateway to the cities of Hamilton and Burlington in southern Ontario. It was sought to beautify what would eventually become the Rock Garden and the Sunken Garden of McMaster University in Hamilton, and subsequently the Cootes Paradise Marsh, all three now within the holdings of the RBG.

A tour. The new Rock Garden offers the visitor a fresh, vibrant, updated, and uniquely Canadian horticultural collection in the spectacular setting of the former quarry. The descent into the bowl is guided by contemporary signage and wayfinding that provides barrier-free entry points. A dramatic new watercourse starts with a new fountain featuring water spilling from a rock face in the entry courtyard. In the transition from the elevated table lands, water and visitor circulation complement each other in the reading of the site. The forested rock walls provide a dramatic three-dimensional backdrop which reinforces the sublime sensory experiences in this very earthly garden. The water then flows under arched bridges and meandering in a man-made channel. As with the placement, range, and scope of the plantings, the presence of water is integrated with new technologies available in lighting and sound. The pool basins are made of shotcrete, with stone coping, porcelain tile cladding, and decorative black pebble bottom.

The collection. The new garden respects the look and feel of the iconic heritage, while celebrating the beginning of a new era. The repair and restoration of damaged features on the pathways, as well as the introduction of new ones, have together broadened the understanding of the collection by increasing exposure and access to the plants. JRS also prepared detailed planting records to contribute to this public outreach and which will assist the RBG staff in the future with cataloguing the plant collections. New plants and species added rely on flower, foliage, fall color and fruit to add layered seasonal interest. This strategy reduces the historic reliance on planting annuals to achieve bursts of colour. The new horticulture design reflects a forward looking approach, embracing sustainable trends in Canadian garden design, management, and best practices. Visitors are now surrounded by 28,000 new plants in over 750 species, bringing the garden’s total to 143,800 in 2,411 species, as well as 277 bird species and 37 mammal species.

Funding. The project began with the commitment from the Canadian federal and Ontario provincial governments with a shared contribution of $14 million, growing to a total of $20 million with the support of 2,000 financial donors in the community, in the belief that the renovations will nurture many more generations for which it has already inspired a love of nature. This not only increased the size of the funding, but also the scope of the amenities. In the process, the garden was expanded into table lands adjacent to the heritage garden within the confines of the former quarry, growing to 8.0 hectares from the original quarry bowl’s 2.2-hectare limit. In addition to new parking, the repair and restoration of damaged features, along with the introduction of new ones, and the provision of modern lighting and sound systems in conjunction with the new Visitor Centre, have all been developed within the heritage framework.

New venues. Although one of the most popular and largest botanical gardens in North America, the goal was to increase the Rock Garden’s public visibility, presence, and functionality. Key to this was improving accessibility and circulation to all areas for all guests and the addition of a venue to host events all year. Further, the introduction of a more sustainable planting plan characterized by environmental benefits significantly addresses infrastructure issues. Collaborating with the architects of the new Visitor Centre made for a landscape design coordinated with the building’s features that include a restaurant and event spaces. A welcome new and further expanded scope came about through the generosity of the Weston family. This new entry courtyard overlooks the new garden areas as well as the heritage Rock Garden, and ultimately serves as a flexible event space for weddings, cocktail gatherings, private parties, conferences, and the like. The new Dalglish Family Courtyard features a design essay on the quarry with fully enclosed seven-foot high stone walls planted with alpine/rockery plants and large flagstone slabs, as well as a calming water fountain composed of 16 spigots that empty into a large basin.

Entrant office name: Janet Rosenberg & Studio Inc.
Role of the entrant in the project: Landscape Architect
Website: www.jrstudio.ca

Other design firms involved:
CS&P Architects Inc. –Visitor Centre Architecture & Project Lead
Additional Consultants:
Dan Euser Waterarchitecture [DEW] – Water Feature Consultant
Halsall Associates – Structural Engineer
Smith + Andersen – Mechanical Engineer
MTE Consultants – Civil Engineer
Hammerschlag + Joffe Inc. – Electrical Engineer

Project location:
The David Braley and Nancy Gordon Rock Garden
Royal Botanical Gardens
1185 York Boulevard, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L7T1J1

Design year: Launch 2013

Year Built: Completed 2016

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