Reader Rock Garden from 25th Street SW and McLeod Trail.
© J. Cousineau, Parks Canada

Established in 1913 and developed until 1942, this garden is a showcase for the horticultural, ecological, and aesthetic possibilities of gardening in the harsh climate of Calgary. Its creation demonstrates the need to illustrate the potential of gardening in Western Canada. In its heyday, it was regarded as one of the most beautiful and successful gardens in Western Canada, combining the informal aesthetics of the Edwardian Arts and Crafts movement with the structure and content of the highly popular alpine rock garden typology. Its founder, William Roland Reader, was one of a small number of municipal parks superintendents in Canada who significantly shaped the open space systems of their cities through professional skill and knowledge, personal energy, dedication, and long-service. This garden supported horticultural work in the larger urban parks system, including the adjacent cemeteries developed by Reader.

Reader Rock Garden is built into a steep hillside south of downtown Calgary. It is an Arts and Crafts style alpine rockery, a garden type popular in Europe and North America at the beginning of the 20th century. Rock gardens of this type feature naturalism, informality, hardy plant species, and microscopic alpine settings within the garden. Reader Rock Garden consists of a matrix of rock paths, steps, and walls that form numerous planting beds divided into sections containing thousands of native and non-native plant specimens.

Although the century-old garden can be appreciated for the beauty of its plantings and the ingenuity of its design, it is also interesting as an example of how the horticultural possibilities of the Canadian Prairies were promoted when European settlement in Western Canada was in its infancy. Reader created one of the few significant gardens in Western Canada in an environment believed to be hostile to agricultural endeavour. Undaunted by desert-like conditions, chinook winds, and extremes of temperature, his personal garden became not only a vehicle for promoting settlement but also a successful experiment in civic beautification. Taking inspiration from the City Beautiful movement, which linked civic beauty with social progress, as well as Thomas Mawson’s garden-city plan for Calgary, Reader worked tirelessly to advance the City Beautiful principles he believed would draw settlers to the region. Species cultivated successfully in Reader’s garden and propagated in his nurseries were planted throughout Calgary as part of the Calgary Parks’ mission. Private citizens were encouraged to follow Reader’s example, having also been invited to visit his garden and take inspiration from it.

To the extent that trees, parks, and gardens of all kinds can be seen to flourish in southern Alberta, they owe a significant debt to the horticultural achievements of William Roland Reader, the fruits of which can be enjoyed in the Reader Rock Garden today.