When Elisabeth and Ron Hilton purchased a dilapidated Victorian farmhouse on eight acres of neglected land, they never imagined that 40 years later there would be a line up of people waiting to see what they had created. Many had heard the rumours of this amazing hideaway, but few had been privileged enough to see it. But, now, for the first time, the Hiltons are opening their property up for public viewing. Elisabeth and Ron have fulfilled their dreams by refurbishing their Victorian house and barn and turning the property’s neglected orchard into an amazing botanical garden.

It was a bit of a quest for me to locate the Hilton’s home, which is secluded on a dead end road just west of St. Catharines. I parked my car at the end of a long row of vehicles and then waited in line under a rose covered archway to get in for a rare glimpse of this much talked about, but rarely seen property. For years, there had been whispers and rumours about their magnificent property, and from time to time horticulturists and special interest groups had been invited to tour the landscapes that the Hiltons had created. But today was a once in a lifetime chance for the public to get a glimpse of these enchanting gardens.

Ron and Elisabeth were prominent members of the business community in St Catharines and Oakville for over 30 years as owners of the popular clothing store, OPUS. Much is known about this couple’s public persona, but few have ever had the chance to enter into the privacy of their home. I asked the Hiltons why they chose this particular property—“It all began with a need for privacy, a place to retreat and recharge from the stresses of business. We loved dealing with people, but at the end of the day we needed to recharge,” said Elisabeth. “Working with our hands relieved the stress of the mind; being outdoors is so zen and so healing.”

Elisabeth grew up on a farm and remembers how content she would feel among the trees and flowers. “We had no idea when I began with our first flowerbed that it would evolve into this. I just kept planting more things.

I tried to recreate that childlike feeling by designing intimate pockets of relaxation throughout my property. I didn’t want it to be straight and sterile; I like organized chaos, where one would be surprised and delighted by little intimate spots that could be stumbled upon. The paths meander everywhere and lead you to lily ponds, swings, arbours, beehives, art installations, groupings of unusual plants and little hideaways.”

The garden is a symphony of changing colours; throughout each season there is always something in bloom. Elisabeth orchestrates her gardens just as a conductor of music, each section playing its part to create the overall masterpiece. “I design each bed just as I would put an outfit together for one of my store clients. I utilize rules of design such as size, colour harmony, shape and flow and always punctuate it with an accessory such as a contrasting colour or piece of art such as a statue, piece of furniture or antique farm machinery,” she explained.

Ron had little landscaping experience because he grew up in the large urban city of London, England, but he became a master at gardening and refurbishing of antiques. He completely refurbished the original woodwork in their 18th century home, as well as the original, hand-hewn, post and beam barn at the back of the property. “We are workaholics,” Ron says, “we just don’t know how to stop.”  The barn was completely renovated and turned into a guesthouse, leaving all the original wood exposed.

The Hilton’s gardens are filled with exotic and rare plants that many astute botanists appreciate for their rareness or unusual pedigree. Liz has become an expert on many subjects relating to plants because of her insatiable love of gardening books. Her walls are lined with endless shelves of technical manuals, gardening books and magazines. “I am constantly looking for new plants to add to my collection. I get so excited about purchasing something new or trading clippings and bulbs with other horticulturists. There is just so much to know about each plant, the soil, and the surrounding environment. The plants have an effect on each other, and so I try to work with Mother Nature and not against her. I often include wild plants with domesticated plants, because they have beautiful blossoms and leaves, and are perfectly adapted to the local microclimate, so are much easier to look after,” Lis said.

Elisabeth designed the garden from the inside out— strategically creating a beautiful flowerbed within the sight-lines of each of her windows. The garden was created for fragrance and for wildlife, so her main priority, when choosing plants, was to provide trees and shrubs that would attract them.  She chose mulberries and yews for chipmunks; holly for cedar waxwings; viburnum for hummingbirds; bushes for butterflies; clover for bees; ponds for fish; and a stream for frogs and reptiles. Every plant serves a purpose in addition to providing pleasure and enjoyment.

Elisabeth has found creative uses for her garden. For example, she generously gives her time to mentoring troubled youth by introducing them to her garden and teaching them how to look after it. Many of these young people have very upsetting family lives, but when they arrive at the gardens, they don’t want to leave the peace that abounds here. Once the children put their hands in the dirt, they are hooked— the thrill of seeing a frog or an earthworm up close gives them a connectedness and deeper appreciation of life. “It is just so important for humans. I believe that gardening should be part of the school curriculum. After 40 years, I know for sure that working in my garden is truly the medicine that can heal the soul.  Outdoors I am always filled with happiness and reverence for life itself,” said Elisabeth with a contented smile.

After a lifetime of creating this outdoor masterpiece, the Hiltons have decided to downsize and sell their home. “Although we will be very sad to leave our home of 40 years, we are also very excited to start on our next project: we are building our new home,” they said.  The land is just a blank canvas waiting for a new picture to be painted.”

The property on Fifth Street now operates as a B&B. Guests are able to stay in the historical farm. Visitors are free to wander the gardens and even if you are not staying at the B&B, you are still able to tour the gardens. Tours are available for $10 per person. It’s best to call and reserve in advance. Visit squirrelhouseniagara.ca for more information.

Written By: Sandra Ozkur