Mabel Bell's century-old gardens bloom again in Cape Breton

·3 min read
This garden plot was planted with the same species of wildflowers that Mabel Bell would have grown at her property, Beinn Bhreagh, in Baddeck.  (Emily Latimer - image credit)
This garden plot was planted with the same species of wildflowers that Mabel Bell would have grown at her property, Beinn Bhreagh, in Baddeck. (Emily Latimer - image credit)

When an old safe was opened at Alexander Graham Bell's estate in Baddeck, N.S., thousands of documents and images were found detailing his wife's elaborate gardens.

That discovery three years ago sparked an idea to recreate Mabel Hubbard Bell's gardens at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck.

Parks Canada, the Alexander Graham Bell Foundation, and a researcher at Cape Breton University teamed up to bring Hubbard Bell's gardens to life on the museum grounds, more than 100 years later.

Now visitors at the museum can walk the grounds and see species Hubbard Bell had planted in her own garden at Beinn Bhreagh, including corn, cauliflower, blueberries, and marigolds.

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

"It was something tangible that we would be able to share on how special she was," said Mary Tulle, chair of the foundation.


Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer

The wildflowers, fruits, and vegetables Hubbard Bell detailed in her paperwork and planted in her gardens are ecologically significant. They were important sources of nectar for pollinators, which have a crucial role in ecosystems.

"What we've highlighted in the gardens are the important plants for our wild pollinators that [Mabel] knew were valued for ecosystem services," said Dr. Alana Pindar, a visiting professor in ecosystem health and food security at Cape Breton University.

Selected species were planted in two 65 square metre plots on the museum grounds, the typical size of a backyard across Canada, according to Pindar.

"So whatever we can plant here, people can certainly plant in their own backyards," she said.

Scientific mind

Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer

Summer student Georgia Pardy has been watering the gardens since they were planted in June. She said visitors are curious to know how the gardens connect to the Bell story.

"It's really cool to share the story of Mabel and the extraordinary things she did through the gardens," she said.

Pardy especially likes how Hubbard Bell used scientific methods to maintain her gardens in sustainable ways.

"She was so driven. You have to remember, this was the late 1800s, early 1900s. There weren't a whole lot of opportunities for women … but Mabel went out and she created her own."

Submitted by Adam Young
Submitted by Adam Young

Research assistant Anna Fenton worked alongside Pindar to help collect specimens and document the progress of the gardens throughout the summer.

She said Hubbard Bell's work was inspiring.

"She was incredibly meticulous. She was really organized. It was very impressive. She's far ahead of her time," Fenton said.

"This was not just her having a garden just for fun. This was her feeding her family and making connections between, 'Oh, there's insects on my plants, and maybe they're doing something to help those plants.' But it didn't stop there. She would keep asking questions and keep trying to make those connections, which is the hallmark of a scientist."

Submitted by Adam Young
Submitted by Adam Young

In October, the museum will harvest the garden and host a celebration for community members, something Hubbard Bell would have done during the First World War.

"She actually ripped up her front yard and planted a potato field to make sure that Cape Bretoners had enough potatoes," Fenton said.


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