Reader Rock Garden in Calgary

William Roland Reader © Glenbow Library and Archives / CU183825

For the week of February 26, 2024.

On February 27, 2018, the Government of Canada recognized Reader Rock Garden in Calgary, Alberta, as a national historic site. Built between 1913 and 1929, it showcases the horticultural, ecological, and aesthetic possibilities of gardening in the harsh climate of Calgary.

Reader Rock Garden was the work of William Roland Reader (1875–1943). Born and raised in England, he worked as a gardener and forester on large estates in Derby, Essex, and Yorkshire before moving to Canada in 1908. He settled in Calgary, where he tended the gardens of businessman Patrick Burns, one of the founders of the Calgary Stampede. Reader also published articles on horticulture in the Calgary Herald, and helped create the Horticultural Society of Calgary and the Calgary Zoological Society.

In 1913, the City of Calgary hired Reader as Parks Superintendent. The position came with the two-storey Arts and Crafts-style cottage. It had been built for his predecessor at the crest of a hill in a desolate landscape of rock and patches of grass. Between 1913 and 1929, Reader transformed his side of the hill into a garden of approximately 0.57 hectares. One of the biggest challenges he faced was the local climate, which was very dry and had temperatures that fluctuated by as much as 50 degrees Celsius over the course of a year.

Calgary is located on the Bow River, in the foothills in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It has long been a gathering place, known as Moh’kinstsis, Wîcîspa, Guts’ists’i, and Otos-kwunee. This is Treaty 7 Territory and the land of the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), Ĩyãħé Nakoda, Tsuu T’ina, and Métis nations. Their ancestors found ways of thriving in the changing and often extreme climate. The Niitsitapi cultivated the Pink Pussytoes (Antennaria rosea) and the Western Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum). Reader incorporated such plants into his eclectic garden.

Reader transformed the hillside with help from city staff. Reader and the city worked to improve the quality of the topsoil, and brought in boulders from Drumheller, Cochrane, and Banff to build a network of retaining walls. These walls helped counteract erosion, contain the earth, and define roadways. A series of winding flagstone grass paths and linking stone steps were laid out across the face of the hill. They articulated sections within the larger garden, as well as some of the beds within each section. Reader was influenced by different British garden types, including the Edwardian Arts and Crafts garden, the alpine rockery, and the botanical garden.

In 1929, Reader completed the initial construction. The garden was a source of pleasure for Reader, but also served an important function. Here, he tested out roughly 4,500 different species or cultivars of flowers, shrubs, and trees before planting them in the streets and parks of Calgary. The garden was constantly changing, with new varieties of plants added all the time. Reader searched the region and the world for species that were both beautiful and hardy, even sourcing the blue Meconopsis poppy from Tibet. Following his death in 1943, the City of Calgary demolished the superintendent’s house and opened the gardens to the public. The house was later reconstructed from archived blueprints and is now a café.

Reconstructed rustic bridge and gazebo at Reader Rock Garden.© Jennifer Cousineau / Parks Canada, 2015.

Reader Rock Garden was designated a national historic site in 2018. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, complexes of buildings, and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, persons, and events of national historic significance. Any member of the public can submit a subject to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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