The Beauty of Passing Time

By Gabrielle Tieman

Our lives revolve around time. Alarm clocks, schedules, timers; time is an ever controlling factor in day to day life. But Ontario Power Generation and the Niagara Parks Commission’s Floral Clock has given us the opportunity to look at time, having halted the rush and planted the beauty back into the passing minutes in a literal fashion. >>

This free horticulture attraction featured along the Niagara River Parkway adjacent to the Centennial Lilac Garden and Sir Adam Beck Generating Stations entices millions of tourists annually, all coming to take in the beauty of this modern mechanical clock meets organic botanical wonder.

Built to act as a beautiful distraction, the clock was designed and constructed in 1950 by Ontario Hydro with the intention of drawing attention away from the wires that surround the area.

“The clock was more or less built to soften all of these wires,” said Donna Rossi, lead hand gardener to the floral clock.

Inspired by a similar famous clock found in the Princess Street Gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland, Ontario Hydro Chairman Dr. Richard L. Hearn was told to look into the floral wonder in 1903 while on a business trip. Inspired by the beauty of the clock and the attention it was attracting, Hearn set away to design a similar, but more impressive in stature, clock which would later be constructed in 1950.

In 1977, Ontario Hydro joined with the Niagara Parks Commission allowing them to control the maintenance and design of the botanical aspect of the floral clock while Ontario Hydro maintained the original design and construction of the hardware – including the clock mechanism, hands, transformers, drive system and musical applications that are housed within the three small rooms underneath the clock.

To this day, the Floral Clock continues to be a team effort.

“This is a full partnership with Ontario Hydro,” said Mark Dykstra, Senior Director of Parks with the Niagara Parks Commission. “It is on Ontario Generation property. The Niagara Parks Commission maintains the garden piece of it, Ontario Hydro works with us on the infrastructure piece.”
Today, the clock is more than three times the size of its inspiration in Scotland, with the face measuring 40 feet across, the planted area measuring 38 feet across and containing over 16 thousand locally grown carpet bedding plants and three traditional hands that weigh a combined 1250 pounds.

But the clock’s face is not simply a pretty design. Rossi and her design team utilize the creative surface to commemorate the history of the Niagara Parks Commission and Hydro as well as celebrate special events important to the community.

But the clock is not only a once annual feat, it features two faces each year; one in the spring that is made up of violas which provide a colourful design to welcome the spring and the second at the beginning of June for the summer season, showcasing thousands of carpet bedding flowers. Chosen for their easy maintenance, these summer season flowers begin growing in the greenhouses at the School of Horticulture in November and include red, pink and yellow Alternanthera, grey and green Santolina and other similar plants that are used until the ground frosts in October.

“It’s based on the ability to trim it and keep the height low,” said Dykstra. “Other annual plants just get too tall and then you lose the blossom. The actual density of the colour that you get with those plants is what creates this pattern.”

“Even annuals you would have to keep deadheading and you wouldn’t always get the colour,” added Rossi, a graduate of Niagara College, who has been part of the Clock’s maintenance and design team since 1998, with her first designs featured in 2000.

But the clock’s face is not simply a pretty design. Rossi and her design team utilize the creative surface to commemorate the history of the Niagara Parks Commission and Hydro as well as celebrate special events important to the community.

“Whether it is a theme, like the War of 1812 or an anniversary like the one for Hydro coming up in 2015, groups do contact us with an interest in displaying it on the clock,” said Dykstra. “In the end, it is like a piece of art the beauty of it.”

Past clock faces have commemorated the Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara, The Boy Scouts, and the War of 1812. Community members can pitch ideas to the team for inspiration, but the majority of the ideas come from Rossi, usually almost a year prior to the planting.

“I try to come up with the design one year before,” said Rossi. “The ideas are always there. I am always looking at things, on sides of buses or billboards, wherever I get an idea.”

Following finalizing the clock’s face design, Rossi puts the design to scale and puts a graph on it. Then it is given to the carpenters who make a wooden template of the design. Once the template is done, Rossi sets out to make the metal forms that outline the design and help in the planting process. Starting from the top and working their way down, it takes a team of six plus people and four days, weather permitting, to rip out the plants, lay the design and plant the new seasonal arrangements. But the manual labour does not end at the initial planting. Every two weeks, two gardeners of the maintenance team halt the clock to trim the plants in order to maintain the height and colour of the clock face’s design. This process takes two to three half days, weather permitting.

Adding another touch of whimsy, curving around the clock’s face is an 85 foot wishing well pond, housing bright gold fish and lily pads. Constructed as a preventative tactic to ensure tourists did not climb up on the clock or pick the flowers, all summer long tourists can be found tossing change into the pond and making a wish. When the Parks drain the pond later in the season, the coins are given to Ontario Power Generation who then give it to local charities.

So next time you’re in Niagara taking in the beauty of the great Niagara Falls this summer, pack a lunch, take a trip along the river and let yourself marvel at the Floral Clock and the beauty of passing time.