by Doreen Nicoll
I have found the secret garden. There is no gate or little door, but there is a Fairy Queen who is welcoming and gracious, yet formidable with an ever so slightly mischievous side. And, the Queen has a loyal helper who draws energy and life from her work caring for the garden.
Where is this wonderful sanctuary that’s home to butterflies, flying and crawling insects, snakes, frogs, toads, and a variety of birds? Well, it’s hidden away down an unassuming road where the Desjardins Canal finds its final resting place in Dundas now a reluctant amalgamation into the City of Hamilton, Ontario.
This hidden gem eluded me for years. I frequent the Carnegie Gallery in downtown Dundas, have taken pottery classes at the Dundas School of Art, and meander along Main Street buying local delicacies and enjoying a coffee. Yet, I never stumbled across this incredible naturalized garden that is free for all to see and enjoy.
The Urquhart Butterfly Garden (UBG) was the brainchild of local businesswoman Joanna Chapman who was inspired to start the garden after watching by a butterfly laying eggs on a milkweed plant outside her landmark book shop, Chapman Books. An independent woman after my own activist heart, Joanna was the unifying force behind forming the 1992 group the Butterfly Coalition.
The garden was named for pioneering entomologists Dr. Frederick and Norah Urquhart, who after forty years of patient research solved the mystery of monarch migration. The Urquharts attached tiny pressure-sensitive adhesive tags with the message, “Send to Zoology University Toronto Canada” to each butterfly’s wing. That’s when they started receiving little boxes from all over Canada and the United States containing the tagged monarchs proving they travelled hundreds of kilometers on their journeys.
Members of the Coalition secured funding, identified an appropriate site, solicited contributions in kind from local businesses and individuals, gained the support of the Town of Dundas and devoted many hours of their own time to planting and maintaining the garden. The construction of Canada’s first municipal butterfly garden began in 1994 and Joanna is still there every day.
UBG has expanded exponentially and now envelopes intertwining paths adjacent to the bank of the canal. All are planted with shrubs, perennials and annuals. The Butterfly Coalition also planted ten memorial apple trees in Centennial Park, adjacent to the garden.
But, the garden is so much more than that. It is a place for children and adults to breath in life. To find calm in the proverbial storm that has become our everyday existence. It is a chance to understand how human life and wild life need to meet, mingle and heal each other.
In the summer of 2018, Jessah undertook a unique project. She incorporated a simple technology called soil solarization that uses solar power to kill off invasive species.
Jessah began the eight-week process by cutting down belligerent Canada Thistles and then mulching the dampened areas with a layer of very heavy straw. By covering the six prepared areas with transparent polyethylene Jessah trapped the sun’s power heating the soil under the plastic.
Over time, hydrothermal heating destroyed unrelenting roots, unwanted weed seeds, pests, bacterium, viruses, and fungi while organically enriching the physical, chemical and microbial makeup of the soil creating the perfect conditions to ensure enhanced plant growth.
Using soil solarization meant Jessah and Joanna were able to plant more native shrubs – mostly non-invasive Fragrant Sumac and Staghorn Sumac, as well as native wildflowers in the early fall. These perennials will thrive in the enriched soil without crowding out companion plants any time soon.
This summer Jessah was also organized the UBG phot contest. Visitors were invited to take their cameras for a walk and share all the beautiful butterflies, moths, insects, plants and flowers, birds and wildlife they photographed.
Using blind judging three judges viewed over 600 images submitted from all over southern Ontario. Prizes for first and second place were awarded for Youth under 18 and Adult 18+ in four categories. Entrants ranged in age from six to over 60 years.
Shamindrini Gomesz placed second in the Adult 18+ age group for her submission of Himalayan Blackberries in the Plants and Flowers category. After finding the garden online Gomesz decided to visit. She says, “I find it a beautiful and tranquil place to enjoy Mother Nature and spend time doing something I love – taking pictures of anything that catches my eye. It is also easy to get to, and makes a welcome break from the stress of work and looking at mostly a concrete jungle on other days. After visiting the garden with a friend, I decided to submit some pictures, just for the fun of it. This is the first time I have submitted my pictures for a photography contest.”
UBG also has its own official photographer Michelle Sharp. Sharp not only takes daily pictures that are uploaded to the garden’s site, but she created the eye-catching panels for the UBG kiosk that is full of beautiful photographs and information about the diverse life inhabiting the garden.
The garden is free to visitors, but should you want to contribute to this very worthy and beautiful cause make your cheque payable to the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club and mail it to their office at 116 King St W, Hamilton, ON, L8P 4V3. Please note on the cheque that you want the funds to go to the Urquhart Butterfly Garden.
Located in Centennial Park at the corner of Cootes Drive and East Street the garden is conveniently accessible by bus or bike. Parking is available off King Street East.
I hope to run into you enjoying this wonderful wild side of life in quaint Dundas, Ontario.