Just Offshore from Downtown Toronto, Verdant Islands with Personality to Spare

Ward Island is part of the Toronto Islands, just a few minutes ferry ride from downtown Toronto, Canada. That short ferry ride transports you between what feels like one world and another.

The ferry to Ward Island in downtown Toronto.
The ferry to Ward Island in downtown Toronto.

You leave the bustling hub of a city of 2.6 million people. You arrive in a place of small cottages and modest houses, no motor vehicles (the Toronto Islands are the largest urban area in North America without cars), and gardens lovingly tended and often creatively inspired.

View of downtown Toronto from the Ward Island dock.
View of downtown Toronto from the Ward Island dock. It was a hazy, cloudy day.

Actually, Ward Island is not an island. Rather it is the eastern-most chunk of Centre Island, the largest part of this tiny archipelago.

Judy and I got to see the Toronto Islands as part of the brilliantly organized 2015 Garden Bloggers Fling. Once the Flingers got off the ferry and had a group picture taken, we were given maps and a list of the gardens that were open to visitors.

The "streets" of Ward Island were tiny, maybe wide enough for four people to walk abreast.
The “streets” of Ward Island were tiny, maybe wide enough for four people to walk abreast.

After that, we were free to spend the afternoon wandering at will. This post will focus on Ward Island, and in the near future I’ll write something about Algonquin Island, which had a slightly different feel.

To be honest, I can’t remember enough to write about the individual gardens we saw on Ward Island, but I can write about the general impression they made on me.

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The overall feel was certainly informal, often with a Bohemian vibe. These Bridalwreath-type Spirea were popular, and obligingly at peak bloom at the time of our visit.

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Lots of originality could be found in materials and objects used for hardscape, containers, and garden art.

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Why shouldn’t a toilet be repurposed as a planter?

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I liked this cow-themed mailbox.

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We also saw some wonderful water features. I like this rough-cut stone.
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Watch out for the spider!

Alliums were abundant in the gardens we saw.
Alliums were abundant in many of the gardens we saw.

As for color, it seemed as if all the flowers of spring were blooming simultaneously in June rather than sequentially throughout the season.

Hellebores in June.
Hellebores in June.

Tulips, Alliums, and Irises, Lilacs and Hellebores – all could be seen blooming at once.

Another view of downtown Toronto, this one from an island garden. Note the tulips, al;ks blooming in June.
Another view of downtown Toronto, this one from an island garden. Note the tulips blooming with Iris and Cammasia in June.

Perhaps there were all rushing to catch up from the long winter, knowing there was no time to waste.

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After seeing a number of gardens, Judy and I walked to the bridge leading to nearby Algonquin Island. Our route was a boardwalk along the south side of the island, facing Lake Ontario.

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We passed empty beaches.

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We saw quite of a few of these signs during our ramblings. On the opposite end of Center Island there is a small airport servicing propeller planes. There is a push to extend the runways so that jets can also land, but it is running into determined opposition.

Today’s Toronto Islands community actually owes its existence to such civic protest. In the 1950s a plan was devised to empty the islands of people and turn it into a park. A few hundred residents resisted, and a lengthy struggle ensued that did not end until about ten years ago.

We made use of this bench to contemplate the big lake.
We made use of this bench to contemplate the big lake.

The final resolution is that while the land is publicly owned, the residents own their houses and hold a 99 year lease on the land they live on. Development is severely restricted: there is a school, a senior center, three cafes, and a children’s amusement park – but no stores. Supplies must be brought from the mainland. People visit from the mainland to enjoy the Islands, but only on foot.

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Eventually Judy and I came to the Algonquin Island bridge. The narrow channel between the islands was full of boats.

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And the bridge took only a minute or two to cross.

Next: Algonquin Island.

50 Comments on “Just Offshore from Downtown Toronto, Verdant Islands with Personality to Spare

  1. Sounds wonderful to live in an area without cars, time must slow right down. Interesting to see Tulips, Alliums, Irises, Lilacs and Hellebores all flowering at once, what is the winter temperature there, so close to water?

  2. These gardens are charming. I hadn’t known about the fight with the city to maintain homes on Center Island. I lived in Toronto in the 1960s and remember sailing to Ward Island when my boss took several of us there one evening on his boat.

  3. Did you walk around to all the gardens? I found them charming and the cottages so cute and lots of them very well maintained. We crossed the bridge too. I found the islands a great place to live if you want to deal with winter weather. I heard that some residents maintain homes in Toronto also for this reason.

    • We couldn’t get to all the gardens, but saw quite a few. I’m going to do a second post on the Algonquin Island gardens. The idea of living there through the winter sounds a bit daunting.

  4. Interesting lifestyle these folks have chosen. I think rough-cut stone would look great in any garden. Every time I see it I want some for my own.

  5. Those islands have quite a history. And the modern conflict between preservation and use. Sounds like a good comprise has been reached. The islands look charming and relaxed. Love the use of small branches as fences.

  6. Well, my blogger-friend: you came to Toronto and saw places that I, who lived and worked in Toronto for years, have never seen. Thanks for the garden tours you’ve been giving me through your blog!

  7. To live in a place without cars — sounds perfect. And it looks so pretty. Nice photos!

  8. The back story is fascinating. Thanks for that. From reading comments, I gather there are plenty of people who would thrive and keep that lifestyle going if given the chance. As for me, a visit would be lovely but I wouldn’t want to extend it to a long-term commitment. How about you?

  9. Nice shots of the water features. I like the use of the rough branches as boundaries features and they look quite quaint painted in pastel colours.

  10. What a wonderful post, reminiscent of our times at the Islands when we lived in Toronto – we naturally favored Wards Island because of the lifestyle there. Great photos and a wonderful walk down memory lane. Thanks 🙂

    • Wards Island is definitely more like an artist colony, Algonquin feels more suburban, though still beautiful and unique.

  11. I’ve never known about the islands near Toronto Jason. I loved a trellis with climbing roses.Thanks for sharing.

  12. How fascinating Jason, the way I see it, anything is up for grabs in a garden, even an old loo….why not, sinks are used all the time. I do like the water feature, and that spider is wonderful!xxx

  13. Great to see this! I was in a group that high-tailed it to Algonquin Island and skipped Ward. So thanks for sharing this! I thought it was incredibly odd to see all of those different plants blooming at the same time. Kind of time warp-ish! ~Julie

  14. I love that last photo of all the trees creating a covered path. What a wonderful place! I’m glad the citizens there fought to stay on those islands. I would too.

  15. Back in the late 1990s my son and I took several trips to Toronto (usually to coincide with the fireworks competition displays at Eaton Place – do they still have those?) which also included visits to the Toronto Islands. Very enjoyable indeed!

  16. It looks like a beautiful place! That everything-happening-at-once spring bloom is what you get in places with a long winter, late spring, and short summer. 🙂

  17. What a nice little spot to enjoy a summer day, and the island lanes look perfect for strolling.
    There was a town in NY which had a similar setup of cottages on leased parkland, but the state ruled for their removal and even with a national historic district classification the cottages were removed. It’s a still a beautiful park, just different now.

    • It’s hard to argue against open space, but this little village in the city is so unique it seems to me it is worth preserving.

  18. The synchronicity of blooms was in part due to our unseasonably long, cool spring this year. Usually the tulips have expired by the third week in May. The last couple of winters have been, as for many people in the northeast, ridiculously wintery. Winters on the Islands generally aren’t quite as horrible. P.S. “Brilliantly organized”? I’m blushing.

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