What Toronto needs is a Chinese garden

Google “classical Chinese garden Toronto” and here’s what you’ll discover: we have a lot of Chinese restaurants with “garden” in their name. Digging deeper might get you this link to the lost Chinese garden once-upon-a-time on Spadina Avenue.

But do we have an actual, gardeny Chinese garden in T.O.? Not yet. And I wish we did.

Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Classical Chinese gardens like the Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Vancouver are exquisite art forms. The Chinese have been perfecting this art for a long time. Over 2,000 years.

We can probably thank them for concepts like borrowed views – or using design to frame something outside the garden, which makes your garden seem bigger.

Look at the picture above. See how the moon window frames the pagoda? It’s across the pond in the adjacent public garden. In fact, our opening shot looks back at the pavilion from that pagoda. Below, public and private gardens seem to merge as one big space.

Classical Chinese gardens make the most of water’s reflectivity

I was surprised to learn that the Sun Yat-Sen Garden was the first full-scale classical Chinese Garden ever constructed outside of China.” It was created as recently as 1985/6, and Vancouver on the Pacific Rim was a natural fit.

But it’s a long way to Vancouver from here. And, between then and now, a significant number of people of Chinese descent have come to make the GTA their home.

Toronto is a garden city, and I think a classical Chinese garden would be a wonderful addition. Don’t you? Back in 2013, there was talk of building one in Markham. However, I can’t find any further news on that project. Please tell us if you know more.

You don’t need to follow the formal rules of such stylized gardens to find inspiration in them. I’ve always been a rock hound, and still have my childhood rock collection (making me a pack rat, too). An essential element in these gardens, the sculptural scholars’ rocks or gongshi speak to me. They’ve long been considered as collectible as art, if you have the bucks – as this article from high-end auction house Christie’s explains.

A scholars’ rock, again in the Sun Yat-Sen Garden

According to that article, the ideal scholars’ rock had to look like “a painting by the powers of nature.” This natural beauty set in stone was a source of inspiration for ancient Chinese philosophers, poets, artists – and today for Western garden designers. See how they’re used natural stone in the two gardens below, in Toronto and in Atlanta.

Another Chinese garden design principle is the element of surprise and ever-changing perspectives. You never see the whole garden at once. From this, the idea of garden rooms has penetrated into modern garden styles. You could even break today’s small urban gardens – perhaps no larger than the terrace below – into smaller spaces.

One of the many garden rooms at the Sun Yat-Sen Garden.

Give and take of garden design ideas is as old as ornamental gardens. The Chinese Garden at Montreal Botanical Garden borrows the Japanese art of bonsai and displays it in its entry court. (Note the bonsai ginkgo tree I wrote about this fall in a picture below.)

The entry courtyard of the Chinese Garden at Montreal Botanical Garden

And, earlier this week, I raved a bit about gorgeous pebble paving, including some in Chinese gardens. Here’s more from Montreal (above) and Portland (below).

Read further on this topic at the sites of fellow Canadian garden bloggers Paul Jung and Patterson Webster. Paul takes you to Suzhou, one of the first and finest of its kind, while Pat gives you her own perspective on the Sun Yat-Sen Garden.

From Pat’s post, I found out that male areas of the garden feature straight lines in the paving or on the screens over the small leak windows, while female areas have curves. Fascinating, says my inner Spock.

So happy new year – Gong hei fat choy or Gong xi fa cai, as you prefer! What do you think? Would you like to see a Chinese garden on Toronto’s wish list?


  1. Hi Helen,

    Happy Lunar New Year to you! Thanks for the beautiful pictures from Vancouver and Montreal (and the mention.)

    I’d love to see Toronto’s interpretation of a classic Chinese garden (or any garden designed based on Asian landscaping principles). Given the history of Toronto’s Chinese population, it’s a bit of a mystery why the idea hasn’t been developed.

    Real estate is too expensive here, as you know, to “waste” on something as ornamental as a garden when the financial allure of cramming in another condo development is so great, sadly.

    Yes, I’d return to Suzhou in a heartbeat but not in July!

  2. You were on my mind as I wrote this post, Paul. It was no surprise to have your blog turn up in my search for Chinese gardens in the area. Did you read that article I linked to from 2013? Maybe the proposal can be revived – and if it isn’t dead, I hope someone will update me. I emailed Markham’s Federation of Chinese Canadians asking for info, but haven’t yet had a reply.

    1. Thanks for the 2013 Markham link, I didn’t know until now such a vision existed.

      The article makes the good point of hiring specialized/skilled gardeners to maintain plantings. I doubt most “mow-blow-go” workers would be sensitive enough with the pruning and shaping of specimens, lol..

  3. What a wonderful post. Beautiful photos! We were lucky enough to spend 2 eventful years living in Beijing. It took me quite a while to understand what it takes to make a garden, and understand what elements the Chinese find beautiful. We were fortunate to travel a little big and we did get to see some of the Suzhou (the Venice of China) gardens. One of those garden was all stone! And visitors seemed to enjoy walking through the paths, under rock arches and disappearing behind rock walls. To me it looked like an outing to an amusement park. There is a detail of the Master of the Nets Garden (one of the courtyards) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was talking to a Chinese academic one day and he was telling me about the year he spent in NYC, and how homesick he had been. Then he discovered this garden and loved to visit there and feel as if he had been transported back to Beijing. I visited the garden again when we got home and realized that perhaps one of the reasons he felt at home is because the dusty skylight provided just the sort of gray polluted light of Beijing.

    1. Two years living in Beijing! Oh, Pat, what an experience that must have been. I have yet to visit mainland China, though have taken a number of business trips to Taiwan. Occasionally, we have had a chance to visit some of the attractions there (notably the National Palace Museum, a must-see in Taipei) but have yet to see a real Chinese garden. I must check out the Master of the Nets Garden if ever I am in NYC. Thanks for your comments.

  4. There seems to be a Chinese group building them in North America. There’s the one in Portland Oregon and one at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, looking quite similar in style and construction to your Vancouver version. The Huntington version has cost (so far) about 150 million USD, with further sections being added. It’s quite something.

    1. Hi, Sherry, The proposal for Markham was to build the garden in Rouge Park. I think the concern was who would pay to maintain it. Hopefully, someone else will revive the plan one day.

  5. I strongly agree. I am coming to visit Toronto this summer and like you said, the internet search yields only restaurants. The Eastern style gardens are one of my favorite things to visit whenever I travel. They are always a jewel to the cities that have them.

  6. I’m the director of Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon that was handcrafted by Suzhou artisans. I’m always exploring and searching for other gardens and will attest that they are magical, but extremely challenging to care for. A note, a Chinese garden wouldn’t borrow Japanese Bonsai- the Japanese copied Chinese Penjing. Striving for authenticity is important. The entire concept is a miniature version of nature in the city. There are so many layers of history and meaning in their designs and botanical collections. Good luck

    1. What a wonderful job you have, Lisa! Thanks for the insight into bonsai. I had no idea, and I’m a fan (though not a practitioner).

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