Living: Take a Nature Break
by Cristina da Silva
It’s no secret that immigrating and settling in a new country is stressful. Visiting gardens, being in nature and gardening are easy ways to reduce this stress.
"When I first came to Canada, I saw all these beautiful tulips, and I was so happy," says Cindy Pei, a barista at the Pastry Café in North York. Cindy, born in Xi’an city, China, came to Canada in late April, 2004. The many parks and gardens in Toronto helped her adjust to her new home.
Her experience is common. My family moved from Malawi, Africa, to Canada in 1982. We found that winters were not as bad if we regularly visited Chinguacousy Park’s plant conservatory in Brampton. The warm humid greenhouses filled with tropical plants gave the whole family a break from adjusting to life in Canada.
People respond well to plants and green spaces. Studies by Roger S. Ulrich and Russ Parsons of Texas A&M University show that just looking at a plant can reduce stress, fear and anger, and lower blood pressure and muscle tension. Gardening has a similar calming effect. The calming effect applies to any age group, gender or nationality.
The good news is that gardening or walking through parks, trails, greenhouses and gardens are simple low-cost ways to relax. A large city, like Toronto, has the most gardens. But even smaller cities, like Ottawa and Hamilton have great parks and gardens.
"The city of Toronto is often referred to as a city within a park," says Paula Fletcher, Chair of Parks and Environment Committee as well as a City of Toronto City Councillor (Ward 30 Danforth). "We have many wonderful kinds of park spaces that are enjoyed by the residents of Toronto. Our vision is to give everyone a terrific experience. If they just want an urban park experience or a wildness park experience, it’s all available in the City of Toronto."
Toronto has 1,460 parks, including parkettes, which cover 8,000 hectares of green space. Some of best gardens in Toronto include James Gardens in Etobicoke, the Music Garden at the waterfront at Queen’s Quay, Rosetta McClain Gardens in Scarborough and the Toronto Botanical Garden located at the corner of Leslie Street and Lawrence Avenue. The floral displays in these gardens are fantastic. Valley trails that follow rivers and creeks, as well as other wilderness trails, allow city dwellers to enjoy nature in peaceful surroundings. Toronto has over 200 kilometres of off-road trails. The West Don trail and the Rouge Valley trails are some of the best nature trails in Toronto.
Some prefer more urban parks. High Park offers a little bit of everything for the whole family. It has trails, large mature trees, a pond, a restaurant, washroom facilities, sports fields, allotment gardens, theatre and formal and informal gardens. Don’t miss the cherry blossoms in the spring.
Newcomers with a "green thumb" – who are good at growing things – may want to grow a vegetable garden. Living in an apartment, condo or townhouse without any green space makes it difficult. There is a solution: allotment gardens. Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation offers garden plots for Toronto residents to plant vegetables or flowers.
"There are about 18 allotment gardens now," says Paula Fletcher. "Under our Live Green Toronto plan, finding spaces for new allotment gardens is a very high priority and it’s also a personal priority for me in my role as Chair of the Parks department."
Newcomers who like to garden with other people can try community gardens. They require a group effort to get the garden established, which means submitting applications to the city and getting the community involved. Decisions involving the garden also need discussion and agreement within the group. In the winter, plant conservatories or greenhouses like the Allan Gardens Conservatory (Carlton and Jarvis) and Centennial Park Conservatory (major intersection Rathburn and Renforth in Etobicoke) offer an escape from winter.
Newcomers who grow exotic tropical or sub-tropical plants at home can keep their plants over the winter (October to May) at Riverlea greenhouse. The city provides the bench, and heat and light.
Spring in Ottawa means tulips. Lots of tulips. Every spring, Ottawa hosts the Tulip Festival. Over three million tulips are planted in the fall for a spectacular show in the spring.
Once the Tulip Festival is over, Ottawa offers other green attractions. The city contains over 850 well-maintained parks, woodlands and recreational paths. For the gardeners without gardens, Ottawa has a variety of allotment and community gardens as well. The Commissioners Park at Dows Lake is a soothing place to visit, with its relaxing expansive lawns, trees and vibrant flower beds. Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm offers not only flower gardens and 2,000 trees and shrubs, but also demonstration plots of almost every crop grown in Canada.
At 1,092 hectares, the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is Canada’s largest botanical garden. A small portion, 120 hectares, of RBG is cultivated into gardens. The rest is managed wilderness with 30 kilometres of nature trails. Strolling through the rose garden, the Mediterranean garden and the rock garden will calm any visitor. No matter the place, relax while walking through parks and trails, and unwind as you grow your favourite plants. Settling into a new country will not seem so difficult. Even hard working politicians with high-pressure jobs use parks to relax. Paula Fletcher’s favourite park is the Tommy Thompson Park on the Leslie Street Spit. "I like feeling like I’m outside of the city when I’m in the city," Paula says. "It’s beautiful and it’s rugged. It’s wild, but you can go there on your bike, and you get a beautiful vista of the city."