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Apr 1 1989 [estimated]

The story of the Dunington-Grubbs, who left their mark as leaders among garden designers and founders of Sheridan Nurseries, one of Canada's leading plant suppliers.

Gardening as it is understood today has a very short history in Canada. Plants have been cultivated for food for centuries of course, but the growing of plants for aesthetic reasons is little more than a 200-year-old pastime. Yet within that brief period a suprising number of men and women have made lasting contributions to gardening. Some hybridized particular plants for the Canadian climate; others started nurseries for the home gardner. Still others designed gardens. One of the early professional designers was Howard Dunington-Grubb of Toronto.

Mr. Grubb was born in Yorkshire in 1881. When asked about his early beginnings 'Grubbie' as he was affectionatly referred to by his friends, told this story: "I had, at an early age, effectively managed to checkmate my family's plans to make me a school-master by landing at the bottom of every class and failing to make even the third eleven of either cricket or football teams. At a family gathering called at the end of the last century it was unanimously decided to ship the problem child out to the colonies. There, after many years, I stumbled, by accident and without qualifications into society's worst paid profession![landscape Architecture]"

What was left out of this precis was that somewhere in those years he managed to attain a B.S.A (Bachelor of Science, Agriculture) from Cornell University. He returned to London in 1908, as stable hand in a cattleboat, to take a job with Thomas Mawson, a well know English garden designer. For three years he learned while working with Mawson, and during that time met his future wife, Laurie Dunington at a lecture on town planning. She was the speaker, a graduate of Swansea Horticultural College and experienced in garden design. She must have made quite an impression to make this tall (he was well over six feet), shy young man introduce himself at the end of the lecture. They were married in 1911 and combined their surnames to become Howard and Laurie Dunington-Grubb. In that same year they sailed back to the colony, Canada, and set up business as landscape gardeners on Temperance Street in downtown Toronto.

One of the first problems they encountered was the difficulty of getting good nursery stock; shrubs, trees and perennials-for their designs. Back in England Thomas Mawson had had his own nursery where he could be sure of having good healthy plants in the varieties that he wanted for his client's gardens. It was obvious that the Grubbs would have to do the same.

At that time(1912) Dunington-Grub was landscape architect for new Lawrence Park Estates development to the north of the city, and, what could have been more natural than to have a nursery there, right on the spot. However, perhaps the houses went up too quickly, for a few months later the nursery was moved west of the city and was given the name of the nearby river, Humber Nurseries.

The next year, Grubb bought a hundred acres near the hamlet of Sheridan, further west, and renamed the nursery for the town. By then he was too busy designing gardens to run a nursery business so he advertised in the English paper, for a manager. Sven Herman Stensson, a Swedish gardener working in Scotland, agreed to come to Sheridan for $20 a week and living accommodations on the property. Before emigrating he received instructions to bring a bicycle with him as the roads around Sheridan were not at all good!

With the cares of the nursery in capable hands, Grubb concentrated upon what he like best: his Garden designs, most of which were created in collaboration with his wife. Their success was quite remarkable for newcomers, Over two-thirds of their assignments were private gardens for estates in southern Ontario, but there were many public gardens that bore the stamp of a Dunington-Grub design. In 1915 they were creating beautiful plans for Government House, the new residence for the lieutenant-governor in Toronto. Further afield, Grubb and Thomas Mawson submitted plans for the campus of the University of Calgary. In 1924, he planned the landscaping for Manitoba's Parliament Buildings, but this was not approved.

Perhaps the best known public gardens of the Dunington-Grubb were the Rainbow Bridge Gardens and Oakes Garden Theatre in Niagara Falls; McMaster University entrance gardens and Gore Park in Hamilton; Government House; the Juvenile--Court and University Avenue in Toronto. Howard Dunington-Grubb was never a static designer. It is interesting to observe the changing styles in his garden plans. In the early days they have an English Flavour with wide borders and formal plantings. But soon an Art Nouveau influence emerged with the clean, curving lines so typical of that period. Parkwood, the garden of R.S. McLaughlin in Oshawa (Century Home, Aug-Sept 1986) is an excellent example of Dunnington-Grubb's best design in this style.

Ever adaptable, he was in the forefront of the planning movement, first with landscaping for one of the country's earliest planned subdivisions (the Logan, Bain and Sparkhall Avenues suburb in Toronto's east end) and after World War II, Dunington-Grubb designed the landscaping for the Garden Court Apartments in Toronto. These are unique two-storey rental units where both the landscape and building architects worked to create automobile-free living space and green garden settings for each residence.

Even more innovative, Dunnington-Grubb conceived a bold series of plant containers, fountains and sitting spaces for the centre islands dividing the traffic on Toronto's busy University Avenue. These were planned to give impressions of colour and sparkle for the motorist passing by at thirty miles an hour. The same combinations could also be viewed as colourful patterns from the heights of nearby office towers. For 1954 it was a new and modern concept, unique in Canada and much of the united States.

Gardening must be one of the most ephemeral of the arts. Finished gardens so meticulously planned and executed can disapear at the whim of a new owner. Even when the best of efforts are made it is next to impossible to keep a garden in its original design. Of the Dunington-Grubb's hundreds of gardens, very few are known to be in existence. Parkwood is still well managed with much of the original plan on view to public tours.

The gardens around the Juvenile Court Building are still obviously a Dunington-Grubb design and the University Avenue Gardens are beautifully maintained. Here sparkling fountains and planted blocks of colour, changing with the seasons, still delight the passing motorist. Those who are up at five a.m. will see busy gardeners, avoiding the traffic when they replace the spring bulbs and pansies with the bright hues of summer which, in turn, are changed for the reds and golds of autumn. Each year this unusual design has new colour patterns flashing by drivers' and passengers' eyes.

Although the gardens cannot all be seen today, fortunately the designs have become part of Canada's gardening heritage. All the drawings for the Dunington-Grubb gardens are preserved in the archives at the University of Guelph. Many of the artists' renderings of the proposed gardens decorate the new head office of Sheridan Nurseries at Glen Williams, Ontario as do some of the original nursery catalogue covers. Howard Dunington-Grubb was an active member of the Arts and Letters Club and, through friendships formed there, found artists to illustrate his plans and the early covers of Sheridan's catalogues. The 1927, '28 and '29 covers were painted by J.E.H. McDonald of Canada's Group of Seven.

While the Dunington-Grubbs were achieving recognition for their beautifull gardens, the nursery at Sheridan was flourishing under Herman Stensson's management. Here is a great variety of perennials, shrubs, trees, particularly evergreens, became available for landscaping. Stensson introduced Japanese yew (Taxus cupsidata) and boxwood (Baxus) to the Canadian market, as well as many cultivars previously found only between the covers of English catalogues.

Almost every Sunday, Grubb would drive out to Sheridan to tour the gardens and have tea with the Stensson family. Eventually the name Stensson appeared on Dunington-Grubb plans as Bill, the eldest son and a graduate in landscape architecture, joined the design team. Howard Stensson, the youngest son, is now president of the multi-million dollar nursery and two of Herman`s grandsons are vice-presidents. The same emphasis on variety and quality of plants for landscaping is present at Sheridan as was established by Grubb and Stensson over seventy-five years ago, their catalogue is used for more than a basis for ordering plants. Many gardeners consider it a reference manual with its plant descriptions, botanical nomenclature and plant hardiness guides.

And what of Howard Dunington-Grubb himself? The tall, slightly stooping man seemed shy to many a gentleman of 'the old school'. He gave an impression of gruffnesss as he barked short phrases in a deep voice. Although he did not suffer fools gladly, it is said that he was a kind man, fond of people and good to work with and for. One thing was certain: he loved his work, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge, yet was always thirsting to learn more, especially about new inventions and new products. He had a great zest for life. He played golf, appeared in the annual productions of the Arts and Letters Club and performed in the Toronto Skating Club carnivals.

Grubb was devoted to his wife and greatly admired her ability as a garden designer. As long as she was well enough they co-produced the Dunington-Grubb garden designs. Although they had no children themselves, Grubb was most interested in the activities of his friends' families. All his life he enjoyed people and entertainment and in 1965, at 84 he still enjoyed parties--four in the week before he died.

Howard Dunington-Grubb was more of a plant aficionado than some designers and it was in this respect that he dreamed of a botanical garden for Toronto. His search for appropriate land close to the city ended at Meadowvale in what is now Mississauga. In 1958 he set up a foundation that was to seek out more funding for the garden. Most of his shares in Sheridan Nurseries were left to the foundation. Unfortunatly, after his death it was found that along with the difficulty of raising money for a botanic garden so close to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, the land at Meadowvale was a potential flood plain for the Credit River. Eventually the foundation used its bequest, augmented by monies from the sale of the Meadowvale land to fund horticultural projects throughout the province.

Two of the many projects helped by the foundation were the Demonstration Gardens, Tableland plantings and Orientation Building at Humber Arboretum and the 1976 addition to the Civic Garden Centre in Don Mills. Both of these were of special interest and help to conservationists and gardeners. Perhaps the most appealing project for those with a taste for history is the endowment of a Centre for Historical Horticultural Studies at the Royal Botanical Gardens and its semi-annual publication of the excellent Journal of Canadian Horticultural History.

No one knows better than a gardener that "Delight comes from plants and springs and gardens and gentle winds and flowers and songs of birds"(Libanios, 390 AD). Few of Dunington-Grubb's gardens remain "to delight" but his drawings, pictures and living garden projects are a legacy that will enhance the Canadian gardening scene for generations to come.

Of Interest
Journal of Canadian Horticultural History
May be ordered from The Royal Botanical Gardens, Box 399, Hamilton, Ont, L8N 3H8

Sheridan Nurseries has graduated far beyond the first location established by Howard Dunington-Grubb. The firm celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary last year, and there are now nine retail locations in southern Ontario and Quebec, You can call (416)840-0111 for the location nearnest you.

Active with garden clubs and an accredited horitculture judge, Helen Skinner has made a special study of early landscaping and pioneer gardens in Canada.

1 The Dunington-Grubbs worked very closely with T.B. McQuesten on his "City Beautiful" projects including Gage Park, Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) and the Niagara Gardens, many of his highways and highway entrance projects, many of his restoration projects, and they designed the garden at Whitehern and at Battlefield Park.

Lorrie and Harold D.G. were early members of the "Diet Kitchen Group" of Horticultural Designers which evolved into the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects and Town Planners. Lorrie Dunnington was President for a time and then her husband, "Grubbie" took over in that position.

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
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