The quads and gardens of U of T are a welcoming respite from the hectic atmosphere of downtown Toronto. Foremost among them is the University College quad, featured on nearly every brochure advertising U of T, with its Romanesque design emphasizing the prestige and historic significance of the campus. Meanwhile, secluded havens like the Trinity College quadrangle pay homage to gothic architecture, with intricate medieval crosses etched into the ground, and offer an excellent escape from the imposing skyscrapers and bustling city life of UTSG. 

Given the sprawling gardens and unique horticulture all over UTSG, I will admit that the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) gardens, found in six large planters in front of the building, were more than a tad underwhelming at first sight. However, on a deeper look, one can appreciate OISE’s attempt to condense the qualities of larger gardens and bring them out of their enclosures into the bustling streets around campus. 

The gardens’ conception six years ago came at the behest of students and faculty, as a means of inspiring a sense of environmental responsibility through gardening. Each concrete platform houses a unique arrangement of flora and fauna. Through their composition and form, each display represents one of the core tenants of the OISE mission statement. 

The Indigenous Education Garden encompasses the teachings of the Mississauga and Onkwehonwe peoples, displaying plants used for traditional and medicinal purposes in the traditions of these nations. Thus, the stories of these gardens begin with the story of the original communities who lived on this land.

The Equity Education Garden boasts a wide collection of plants spanning North America, honouring the diversity that resides within the walls of U of T. While this garden branches out to highlight these differences, the Holistic Garden brings them together, emphasizing the unity and harmony of the multitudinous cultures and traditions present at UTSG.

The blooming floral Creativity in Education Garden represents the innovation and artistry housed in OISE, that continue to push the boundaries of research. This leads to the final platform — the Environmental and Sustainability Education Garden. This garden looks to the future of sustainability, displaying an environmentally conscious arrangement of low-maintenance and local plant life without sacrificing aesthetics, creating a visually stunning cap to the series of gardens. 

Artistic elements

The play between composition and form helps weave a narrative for each platform. We can best visualize this in the contrast between the Holistic and Creativity in Education gardens.

In the Holistic Education Garden, plant species are arranged in almost concentric circles centred around a black chokeberry bush. Though the shrub is the tallest structure, it is not overbearing — rather, it compliments the ring of black-eyed susans, wild bergamot, and goldenrods surrounding it. The Virginia mountain mint blooms in the front, its white petals complementing the lemon balm, marigold, and bluebells adjacent to it. Here, the arrangement accomplishes balance without forced symmetry. The composition allows room for each element to shine without imposing over the others.

The aptly titled Creativity in Education Garden highlights how creativity pushes the boundaries of the garden’s design — in this case, quite literally, as the arrangement is stuffed with wildflowers and shrubbery that almost seem to burst out of its concrete enclosure. Unlike the more organized arrangement of the Holistic Garden, here the flora is scattered all over the concrete platform. The middle is filled to the brim with purple coneflowers, sunchokes, and wild bergamot, while the perimeter is covered by an even wider variety of brightly coloured chives, red columbines, milkweeds, and more. In this arrangement, the purple flowers catch the eye immediately, jutting out from the greenery and adding a bright contrast. 

The space is divided evenly between the species present, generating a feeling of harmony and balance. The vibrancy of the colours inspires creativity on its own, but the roles of these flowers as pollinators also invite wildlife to enjoy the garden, adding an extra dimension of movement, as bees and butterflies dance around the flora, breathing a new life into it. 

Nature and equity

According to OISE, The Indigenous Education Garden is built to honour the seven grandfather teachings that fundamentally embody common morals and cultures of Indigenous peoples; Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, and Truth. The heart of the garden is an eastern white cedar that symbolizes the ability to overcome adversity. This is a concept that is universal and applicable to the incredibly diverse population of the garden’s visitors, allowing for a point of consensus. 

Sage and wild columbine attract pollinators to the garden and demonstrate the interconnectedness of the natural world, including the union of individuals from all walks of life coming together to learn in, grow from, and thrive in a single space. Milkweed is a symbol of Indigenous knowledge, a reminder to those who come across the garden that they have much to learn from the people who have historically lived on those lands. The colour in this garden is a balance of greens from the sweetgrass, light pink from the milkweed, and bright tones from the wild columbine.

The Environmental and Sustainability Education Garden evokes a cheerful aura. Both the giant and semi-dwarf sunflowers provide a bright yellow colour against leafy greens, which captures any passerby and welcomes them into the garden. They reflect the development an individual gains from education. 

Pink and purple tones complement this colour balance by attracting butterflies; pale purple coneflower, milkweed, and wild bergamot symbolize healthy immunity, sustainability, and multipurpose medicine, respectively. The garden appears young and fresh, and the plants are highly self-sustaining, paying homage to sustainability and a commitment to a healthy environment.

If you guessed that an Equity Education Garden would be home to a wide variety of plants that represent the beautiful unification of contrasting elements, you would be correct. Five unique species are found to coexist sporadically in this garden bed, providing a balance of colours, shapes, and sizes that is visually appealing. Some plants have medicinal uses, some metaphorically represent the characteristics of diversity, while others attract pollinators; thus, demonstrating the power of individual entities with different purposes coming together as one to execute a variety of goals.

If you get an opportunity, walk outside of OISE and take a moment to reflect on the parallels between what each of the plants has to offer and what you are gaining from the space that you learn in. The garden just might inspire new ideas about how you can give back to and help sustain our earth.