Just Offshore from Downtown Toronto, Verdant Islands with Personality to Spare

Ward Island is part of the Toronto Islands, just a few minutes ferry ride from downtown Toronto, Canada. That short ferry ride transports you between what feels like one world and another.

The ferry to Ward Island in downtown Toronto.
The ferry to Ward Island in downtown Toronto.

You leave the bustling hub of a city of 2.6 million people. You arrive in a place of small cottages and modest houses, no motor vehicles (the Toronto Islands are the largest urban area in North America without cars), and gardens lovingly tended and often creatively inspired.

View of downtown Toronto from the Ward Island dock.
View of downtown Toronto from the Ward Island dock. It was a hazy, cloudy day.

Actually, Ward Island is not an island. Rather it is the eastern-most chunk of Centre Island, the largest part of this tiny archipelago.

Judy and I got to see the Toronto Islands as part of the brilliantly organized 2015 Garden Bloggers Fling. Once the Flingers got off the ferry and had a group picture taken, we were given maps and a list of the gardens that were open to visitors.

The "streets" of Ward Island were tiny, maybe wide enough for four people to walk abreast.
The “streets” of Ward Island were tiny, maybe wide enough for four people to walk abreast.

After that, we were free to spend the afternoon wandering at will. This post will focus on Ward Island, and in the near future I’ll write something about Algonquin Island, which had a slightly different feel.

To be honest, I can’t remember enough to write about the individual gardens we saw on Ward Island, but I can write about the general impression they made on me.

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The overall feel was certainly informal, often with a Bohemian vibe. These Bridalwreath-type Spirea were popular, and obligingly at peak bloom at the time of our visit.

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Lots of originality could be found in materials and objects used for hardscape, containers, and garden art.

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Why shouldn’t a toilet be repurposed as a planter?

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I liked this cow-themed mailbox.

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We also saw some wonderful water features. I like this rough-cut stone.
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Watch out for the spider!

Alliums were abundant in the gardens we saw.
Alliums were abundant in many of the gardens we saw.

As for color, it seemed as if all the flowers of spring were blooming simultaneously in June rather than sequentially throughout the season.

Hellebores in June.
Hellebores in June.

Tulips, Alliums, and Irises, Lilacs and Hellebores – all could be seen blooming at once.

Another view of downtown Toronto, this one from an island garden. Note the tulips, al;ks blooming in June.
Another view of downtown Toronto, this one from an island garden. Note the tulips blooming with Iris and Cammasia in June.

Perhaps there were all rushing to catch up from the long winter, knowing there was no time to waste.

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After seeing a number of gardens, Judy and I walked to the bridge leading to nearby Algonquin Island. Our route was a boardwalk along the south side of the island, facing Lake Ontario.

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We passed empty beaches.

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We saw quite of a few of these signs during our ramblings. On the opposite end of Center Island there is a small airport servicing propeller planes. There is a push to extend the runways so that jets can also land, but it is running into determined opposition.

Today’s Toronto Islands community actually owes its existence to such civic protest. In the 1950s a plan was devised to empty the islands of people and turn it into a park. A few hundred residents resisted, and a lengthy struggle ensued that did not end until about ten years ago.

We made use of this bench to contemplate the big lake.
We made use of this bench to contemplate the big lake.

The final resolution is that while the land is publicly owned, the residents own their houses and hold a 99 year lease on the land they live on. Development is severely restricted: there is a school, a senior center, three cafes, and a children’s amusement park – but no stores. Supplies must be brought from the mainland. People visit from the mainland to enjoy the Islands, but only on foot.

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Eventually Judy and I came to the Algonquin Island bridge. The narrow channel between the islands was full of boats.

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And the bridge took only a minute or two to cross.

Next: Algonquin Island.

50 Comments on “Just Offshore from Downtown Toronto, Verdant Islands with Personality to Spare”

  1. Sounds wonderful to live in an area without cars, time must slow right down. Interesting to see Tulips, Alliums, Irises, Lilacs and Hellebores all flowering at once, what is the winter temperature there, so close to water?

  2. These gardens are charming. I hadn’t known about the fight with the city to maintain homes on Center Island. I lived in Toronto in the 1960s and remember sailing to Ward Island when my boss took several of us there one evening on his boat.

  3. Did you walk around to all the gardens? I found them charming and the cottages so cute and lots of them very well maintained. We crossed the bridge too. I found the islands a great place to live if you want to deal with winter weather. I heard that some residents maintain homes in Toronto also for this reason.

  4. Those islands have quite a history. And the modern conflict between preservation and use. Sounds like a good comprise has been reached. The islands look charming and relaxed. Love the use of small branches as fences.

  5. The back story is fascinating. Thanks for that. From reading comments, I gather there are plenty of people who would thrive and keep that lifestyle going if given the chance. As for me, a visit would be lovely but I wouldn’t want to extend it to a long-term commitment. How about you?

  6. What a wonderful post, reminiscent of our times at the Islands when we lived in Toronto – we naturally favored Wards Island because of the lifestyle there. Great photos and a wonderful walk down memory lane. Thanks 🙂

  7. What a nice little spot to enjoy a summer day, and the island lanes look perfect for strolling.
    There was a town in NY which had a similar setup of cottages on leased parkland, but the state ruled for their removal and even with a national historic district classification the cottages were removed. It’s a still a beautiful park, just different now.

  8. The synchronicity of blooms was in part due to our unseasonably long, cool spring this year. Usually the tulips have expired by the third week in May. The last couple of winters have been, as for many people in the northeast, ridiculously wintery. Winters on the Islands generally aren’t quite as horrible. P.S. “Brilliantly organized”? I’m blushing.

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