The Jewel Box Gardens of Toronto’s Cabbagetown

Another memorable experience from the Toronto Garden Bloggers Fling back in June was our tour of Cabbagetown gardens. Cabbagetown is a neighborhood east of downtown Toronto. Originally home to Irish immigrants so poor they grew cabbages in their front yards, the area slid into a long decline before gentrification began in the 1970s.

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As is often the case, artists were in the vanguard of that gentrification and they still give the area an informal, offbeat vibe. However, housing prices have apparently gotten so high that struggling artists who are newly arrived should probably look elsewhere for a place to live.
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This is a neighborhood of red brick row houses with stoops and tiny front yards.

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I didn’t see any cabbages growing in those front yards (the streets were too shady, in any case), but I did see many flowering containers, some of them rather impressive.

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Actually, we Flingers were lucky enough to get a preview of the annual neighborhood garden walk, courtesy of the Cabbagetown Preservation Society. So you can see that both human and feline residents were quite welcoming, though the cats maintained a certain dignified reserve.

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While the streets of Cabbagetown make for a very worthwhile stroll, the most interesting stuff was behind the row houses. This path set the stage for what we were to see.

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The back gardens were not as tiny as those in front, but they still challenged their owners with getting the most out of very limited space.

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They were mostly covered with pavers or gravel. Small garden beds were lushly planted.

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Almost every vertical space was used to provide visual interest – artistic, botanical, or both.

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I like this simple planter filled with Sweet Alyssum, though I think those clay figures are a bit grim. Nice frog.

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Lots of containers growing flowers, herbs, and greens.

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Look out for the giant cat, dwarves! Nice job on those chives, though.

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I like that blue birdbath.

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Behind the little back gardens were narrow lanes, what we would consider alleys in Chicago. The difference being that these are meant to function more as a public space, a venue for neighborhood parties and so on.

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I would be curious to know the origins of this name. We followed Magic Lane from garden to garden for some distance.

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Talk about a still life. Many of us thought this was just brilliant.

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Another shady back garden.

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A beautiful Clematis, though I usually don’t like the frilly double blooms.

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A crane (I think) making itself at home in the Japanese Forest Grass.

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Very nice Japanese-style water feature.

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A quiet place for green thoughts in a green shade, as the poet said.

The gardens we saw in Cabbagetown were like little jewel boxes, but as they seemed to be joined together through an admirable sense of community, they combined to make for a substantial treasure. They certainly made an impression out of proportion to their size.

44 Comments on “The Jewel Box Gardens of Toronto’s Cabbagetown

  1. I love that easel and frame. I might just have to ‘borrow’ that idea 🙂
    The gardeners here are very talented – making small spaces seem lush and large is always such a challenge, but it’s been done brilliantly

  2. I think gardening is a big challenge when you have such little space, so they have all done a great job!

  3. I love the name ‘Cabbagetown’ and its origin. The planted easel is brilliant and I like the ferny stepping stones. What lovely, lush gardens all crammed with interest. Thanks for showing us.

  4. Reminds me a little of England, where no matter how small the yard, there are flowers. Nice neighborhood, but I am always sorry when a place becomes too expensive for artists.

  5. Isn’t it funny how when we see a flower/plant that we don’t especially like in someones garden looking beautiful we have a bit of a change of heart. I like these little jewel boxes. I really like the easel idea. Also those brick row houses have some beautiful appointments on them. The area appears so charming.

  6. Hi, Jason, Here’s the story of Magic Lane, from the Cabbagetown Preservation Association website: “Magic Lane – after Doug Henning who was born in Fort Garry, Manitoba in 1947 and who became interested in magic by the age of 6. With a Canada Council grant to study magic, Henning pursued training as a teenager in Toronto. Broadway musicals such as The Magic Show, and Merlin featured Henning at the top of the billing. In his career, Henning had 8 Emmy award nominations and he won an Emmy award for NBC’s Doug Henning’s World of Magic program. By 1994, Doug Henning ran as a Canadian parliamentary candidate for the Natural Law Party. His residence was located at 94 Winchester Street. Henning died in 2000.” 94 Winchester is the first garden you saw — with all the artwork on the fence, and the picture framed windowbox by the (Magic) laneway entrance. So glad you enjoyed Cabbagetown.

  7. These look like fun gardens. I love the artistic touches. I’ve seen something like that frame on the easel before. I like the funny little clay people too.

  8. Cabbagetown town does has a wonderful history! Small spaces seem to bring out the creative in people, these gardens are certainly unique and interesting. It was good to see the cats and I was really impressed with the water feature and the still life….ingenious! Good to see the lanes used for parties too!xxx

  9. When I lived in Florida there were little alleyways just like those behind the houses. I didn’t realize how much of an impact they’d had on me until I read this post. They were a great way to meet neighbors.
    I like that crane sculpture but I’d like to have one of a great blue heron.

  10. It is impressive what gardeners can do with just a little space! I love that easel showcasing the plants, too – great idea! There so many pretty vertical accents. I like the various balls and dragonflies that float along the top of the plant border.

  11. lots of inspirations, that’s why I love visiting small private gardens – love the frame too, cute idea!

  12. With a sense of coming full circle, there are racks and racks of cabbages (mostly the ornamental purple and white kind) in the gardens centres here just now ready to be planted as winter bedding in people’s front gardens and window boxes!

    • There are lots of those ornamental cabbages right now, but I’m really not fond of them. When I see ornamental cabbage I always think it would be better made into cole slaw.

  13. Great post. The Cabbagetown town history, (and Magic lane) really put the gardens in context. I always think small gardens in cities are such an expression of the sheer tenacity of gardeners to create, plant and grow…

  14. These gardens were truly charming, each unique and full of wonderful plants and piece of art. I could live there in a heart beat. And that lovely rust and rose glass sculpture that we detoured to see would look perfect in my front garden : ) Happy Autumn!

  15. Gorgeous, and I love all the garden art pieces especially that frame on the easel. I have to ask about the Peonies in the 5th photo from the top – they look like they are really, really tall. Were they excessively tall or they just look that way?

  16. Hello Jason, it seems that what these gardens lack in size, they make up for in detail. The level of detail on the walls, pots, art work and all the fun quirkiness means you can spend just as long a time in each one of these small gardens trying to find all the details, as you could walking around a much larger one. It must have been a lot of fun!

  17. That’s me!! 🙂 I loved these gardens, too. I loved how funky they were. Each one was such a treasure. It would have been fun to have had more time to really check them out.

    • It is you! And a cat. I know what you mean about more time, I would have liked to sit in one of those back gardens just to soak it in.

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