These southern Ontario gardens are perfect afternoon spots

About this series: Wheels wants to inspire you to explore. This series of daytrips and longer drives highlight great experiences you can have in the province, and show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover.”

Whether you’re a pandemic plant parent or a seasoned green thumb, get inspired for your gardening season with a series of day trips to discover the splendour of some wonderful gardens that are a short drive from Toronto. As a bonus, research shows spending time in green spaces helps to boost your mood and creativity.

Royal Botanical Gardens

Just under an hour’s drive west from Toronto, and just south of Highway 403 in Burlington, the Royal features four formal garden areas and its Arboretum — more a recreation of an English landscape with trees and plants than a flower garden.

Does size matter? When it comes to the impressive Royal, it does. This is the biggest botanical garden in Canada, where you’ll find 300 acres of cultivated grounds, 27 kilometres of trails and upwards of 231,000 individual plants. With so much to see, be sure to check its website before you go to find out what is in bloom.

And here is an insider tip: if you find the Royal’s main grounds to be too crowded, head to the more secluded Laking Garden for a contemplative moment. It is set on terraces and is home to the irises and peonies, as well as a heritage garden featuring mixed edible and medicinal plants.

And for the best mash-up of tech and flora, plan a visit to the Royal’s Hendrie Park before the end of August to experience “Seeing the Invisible,” an augmented-reality sculpture exhibit that brings together art and nature.

Toronto Botanical Gardens

A 30-minute drive from downtown on Lawrence Avenue East in North York, the Toronto Botanical Gardens features 17 gardens over its nearly four acres of property. The little ones will love the Teaching Garden, while the adults in your group will gravitate to the Floral Hall Courtyard, which boasts fruit trees and fragrant shrubs.

A couple walks over a bridge in Toronto Botanical Garden after heavy rainfall in the city in 2021.

Like last year, it has also created the Trial Garden, where it experiments with bold combinations of hundreds of annuals, perennials and cultivars — plants cultivated through selective breeding to showcase certain traits. It is one of the best spots to snap photos during a visit.

If you’re looking to up your own green-thumb game, check out their programming, which ranges from learning about horticulture therapy and pollinator gardens to yoga classes and a primer on botanical drawing.

Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens

Tucked between Adelaide Avenue and Gibb Street in Oshawa, roughly an hour’s drive east of Toronto, the Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens are a series of parks and gardens along Oshawa Creek. The various areas include its beloved Peony Garden, which is home to one of the largest peony collections in North America.

A woman takes pictures of the peonies in bloom at the Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens.

Visitors can follow secluded trails that lead you past water features and seemingly endless greenery including enormous shade trees that provide relief on humid summer days. You will easily forget you’re in the heart of the city.

If you are a cyclist, be sure to bring your bike with you so you can explore the garden’s Joseph Kolodzie Oshawa Creek Bike Path, a seven-kilometre paved multi-use recreational trail that stretches from the garden south to Lakeview Park. Or, if you have the time and skills, a serious biker can ride from Toronto to Oshawa in three and a half hours.

Whistling Gardens

Nested in the community of Wilsonville, about a 90-minute drive west of Toronto on Highway 403 and south of Brantford, here is where you’ll find a floral collection featuring more than 8,000 perennials, including some 400 varieties of irises, around 600 varieties of peonies and several thousand lilies.

The Whistling Gardens features fountains that spray water choreographed to original music.

But it’s the conifer garden that steals the show at Whistling. It includes varieties found nowhere else in Canada, including one of the rarest plants of the planet, the Baishan fir from southern Zhejiang province in eastern China.

Making the garden even more spectacular to visit its Palace of Versailles-inspired water theatre, which puts on quite a performance thanks to the state-of-the-art fountains that spray water choreographed to original music.

Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens

Established in 1936, this stunning European-style garden occupies 99 acres of land along the Niagara Parkway. It may leave you feeling like it is time to redesign the green space at your own home — even if it’s just switching out your basic planters for something a little more Romanesque.

The Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, established in 1936, occupies 99 acres of land along the Niagara Parkway.

With the garden blooming all season long, it’s worth making several 90-minute drives to Niagara Falls during the spring and summer to see how its plants and blooms change over the months.

As you enter, prepare yourself for the jaw-droppingly beautiful Welcome Plaza, where you’ll find more than 80,000 annuals grown on-site in its greenhouse. Be sure to take a deep breath in the herb garden to take in the delicious fragrances, and plan to spend meandering in the rose garden, which features more than 2,400 roses. It is one of largest and most impressive Victorian rose gardens in North America.

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