Many years ago, during Calgary’s early population boom, a young family emigrated from England to the city, where the husband took a job as a landscaper. The city grew rapidly, tripling in population over the following five years. As the city expanded, the husband also started a small tree nursery to provide much needed plants to his landscaping clients. Furthermore, he worked to establish the Calgary Horticultural Society.
Seven years after his arrival, this man was offered the best possible job, Superintendent for the City of Calgary Parks, Cemeteries & Recreation. This not only changed his life, but also laid the groundwork for changing the lives of Calgary gardeners.
This man was, of course, William Roland Reader.
From 1913 to 1943, William Reader treated the entire city as his own test garden while focusing his main attention on a few acres of land just below the Union Cemetery, where the City provided him a cottage where he and his family lived at the very center of his work universe.
Reader kept many lists of plants in an effort to continually update the garden beds he was creating around his home, and amazingly, in an era well before computers and databases, his lists grew to contain 4500 plants! He also created a “week-by-week” garden guide. His grandchildren believed he would have published this had he not died prematurely while returning home from one of his famous slide-illustrated talks in January of 1943, only a few weeks after his retirement from the City.
Reader’s notes swept the entire horticultural spectrum and he was proud that his own garden bloomed continuously with Hepatica in early April, through to late fall crocus at the end of October. Keen to share his test results, he wrote a column for the Daily Herald (now the Calgary Herald), “It may be of interest to the readers of this column to have a list of the plants introduced for the first time in 1922 and to learn to what extent these proved hardy” he wrote.
Not just a gardener, Reader was a devoted plants-man, and in the style of the era this meant hiking the Rocky Mountains, and becoming a member of the Alpine Club of Canada. Native plants such as Pink Pussytoes (Antennaria rosea), Shooting Star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) and the Western Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum) were famously collected and displayed in his garden and commented on by visitors. It is reported that he sent seeds of the Wood Lily to the Queen’s sister for her garden in England.
Reader also loved new garden fashions, and reported on the newly discovered blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) when it was first exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society’s May 1928 show in London, saying it caused “intense interest”. By 1936, it was included in his list of plants – a sign that he wasted no time getting this new Tibetan discovery into Calgary gardens. Exchanging plants and seeds with garden contemporaries such as Frank Skinner in Manitoba, the arboretum at Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts and Kew Gardens in London, contributed to his great success at introducing new plants to Calgary.
William R. Reader left a legacy of lists and ideas in his writings and his garden. Rehabilitated and reopened to the public in 2006, the garden showcases these ideas, where some of the original plants still grow today. A visit to the garden is not just a walk in the park, but a walk back in time. Look for almost forty large plant tags that label the survivors from Reader’s era. Watch for the seasonal changes in bloom Reader advocated, over your repeated visits to the garden.
The rehabilitation and progress of the Reader Rock Garden continues. William Reader would be proud to see his garden come back to life for enjoyment and education of Calgary’s citizens and visitors.
by Donna Balzer