The Art of Science: Documenting Canada’s Central Experimental Farm

By Canada Agriculture and Food Museum

Canada Agriculture and Food Museum

Canada’s
Central Experimental Farm (CEF), located in the middle of the capital city of
Ottawa, has a rich history dating back to 1886. Founded in part to breed and
test new crops suitable for the Canadian climate, an important part of this
work was to document and share research with other institutions, farmers,
and interested professional and amateur gardeners.   

Looking across the Central Experimental Farm’s main lawn towards the Director’s house, ca. 1900., Unknown, 1900/1900, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum (part of the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation) holds a collection of over 3000 archival photographs, drawings, glass slides, and watercolour paintings from the CEF, some dating back to the 1890s.

Hand-coloured glass Magic Lantern slide depicting the rose gardens at the Central Experimental Farm, ca. 1920. (1920/1920) by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

This collection is a detailed visual record—one that captures the CEF’s scientific endeavours as well as showcases the beauty of its subjects.

Cherries on the branch, photograph printed on a Magic Lantern slide and hand-coloured, date unknown. by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Pictures worth 1000 words…

Different media were used for documentation and distribution by the CEF staff, including publication in scientific papers and journals, pamphlets for distribution to farmers, and printing on glass slides for public lectures to gardening enthusiasts.

Wheat hybridizing, close-up of hands, date unknown. by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Scientific study went hand in hand with accurate illustration of results, and photography offered a new way to document innovation and experimentation.

Printer’s sample from a Central Experimental Farm bulletin, written in 1921 by the Dominion Cerealist Charles Saunders., Unknown, 1921/1921, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Using the photographs documenting their work, the CEF scientists published reports, recommendations, pamphlets, and other literature.

Glass slide printed with a black and white photograph, showing plants growing in a controlled environment, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Advances in camera and film technology in the 1880s made taking photographs outside of dedicated studios possible. CEF staff used this new flexibility to capture their experiments—both in the field and in the lab.

Black and white photograph of apple blight, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Photography had its limits, especially as it lacked accurate colour representation.

Northern spy apple with drought spot, 1937., Arthur Kellett, 1937/1937, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Colour photography in the early 20th century lacked the colour quality necessary for scientific documentation. To address this, paintings and illustrations were created by talented botanical artists who, with their training and knowledge, could create works with accurate colour representation.

Tomato plants crossbred in a greenhouse, hand-coloured slide, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Another technique used to enhance photographic documentation was hand-colouring black and white photographs. Many of the glass slides in this collection have received this treatment, destined for the Magic Lantern machine.

Magic Lantern projector, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The Magic Lantern was an early type of slide projector. Images applied to glass were inserted into the device, and a light shone through the glass to project them onto a wall or other flat surface.

Part of the process of cross-pollinating a flower; bagging the bud after emasculation, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Most of the images in this exhibit are from the collection of over 1500 glass Magic Lantern slides used for lecturing, demonstrations, and sharing research with other research centres, farmers, and scientists.

A man examining a blossom on a tree, noting whether pistils are receptive or ready for hand pollination. (1930s) by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

To produce a coloured slide, a print was made on glass, and hand-coloured using watercolour or oil-based paints. It was then covered by another glass piece to create a transparent slide, used in presentations and lectures.

Iris garden at the Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, ca. 1923. by Faith FylesCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Illustrations and paintings could also be applied to the slides by photographing the original print, and hand-applying colour to the resulting image.

Magic Lantern slides from the Canada Science and Technology Museum Archives. (2017-04-12) by Canada Science and Technology Museum ArchivesCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

The fragile slides are stored in a temperature-controlled environment, and must be handled very carefully.

Lily border garden, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown. by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Art and Science

Photographs, slides, and paintings were used by the Farm’s staff to document their experiments, and also to educate the public. Through lectures on new breeding techniques, publications for gardeners, and presentations that promoted the Farm as a place of beauty, the CEF reached out to researchers, farmers and other interested parties. 

Flower garden, W.T. Macoun’s perennial border, fall phlox, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The use of the hand-colouring technique to enhance the visual quality of the scientific documentation the CEF produced demonstrates just how blurry the line between art and science can be, especially when dealing with such a picturesque subject.

Famous Iris garden at the Central Experimental Farm, ca. 1920s. by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

While photographs depicting the beauty of the CEF’s wheat fields, tree-lined paths and experimental plantings are attractive, the hand-coloured slides of the gardens are truly stunning.

Iris garden, Central Experimental Farm, ca. 1920., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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A hand-coloured photograph of the iris border at the Central Experimental Farm Ornamental Gardens, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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These images would have been used as inspiration for amateur and professional gardeners alike. Following the First World War, horticultural societies saw record membership, and amateur gardeners often attended lectures delivered by the CEF’s horticulturalists.

Isabella Preston posing with her Rosa rubrosa bush, Central Experimental Farm, ca. 1925., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Part of this interest was due to one of the Farm’s most talented horticulturalists, Isabella Preston, who worked at the CEF between 1920 and 1947.

Siberian iris seedlings in Isabella Preston’s test garden, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown. by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Preston’s irises, lilies, roses, and crabapple trees were known internationally for their beauty. Extensively photographed, these images received the hand-colouring treatment for use in Preston’s lectures, presentations, and publications.

Hand-coloured glass negative depicting Isabella Preston in the bearded iris gardens at the Central Experimental Farm, lilac bushes in the background, mid-1920s., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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"Juniata" iris, bred by Isabella Preston, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Preston’s irises were particularly popular, attracting the attention of Lady Byng, wife of Canada’s Governor General from 1921 to 1926. Byng took some of Preston’s specimens back to England, generating international attention for the Farm.

One of the iris varieties bred by Isabella Preston, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Grace Marshall lilies at the Central Experimental Farm, bred by Isabella Preston, 1934. by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Naming flowers was part of the job of experimental horticulturists, and CEF horticulturalists such as Preston drew naming inspiration from lakes, rivers, royalty, and even CEF staff.

These lilies, Grace Marshall, were part of the Stenographer series, named after the Central Experimental Farm stenographers.

L.Tigrimax, painting by Arthur Kellett, reproduced on a Magic Lantern slide, Central Experimental Farm,1930s., Arthur Kellett, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Hand-coloured photograph of Testaceum lilies at the Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Hand-coloured image of a Jack London gladiolus flower at the Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Dominion horticulturalist William Terrell Macoun was also responsible for breeding beautiful blooms, including this popular late 19th-century flower, the gladiolus. By 1926 there were over 550 varieties of gladioli at the Farm.

Hand-coloured image of a Maiden’s blush gladiolus flower at the Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Field crop being harvested by horses, date unknown. by Charles PotterCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Bread and Roses

Visual documentation was also important for the experimental Cereal Division, which is particularly evident when the Division was tasked with finding an early-ripening wheat that could be harvested before the first frost in the newly “settled” western territories.

Charles Saunders crossing wheat at the Central Experimental Farm, ca. 1920s., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Dr. Charles Saunders, son of director William Saunders, was in charge of the Cereal Division. He hand-pollinated many different varieties of wheat, personally examining and selecting the best seeds for each new planting.

Workers planting seeds at the Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Wheat at the Central Experimental Farm, seeded 14" wide and fertilized, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Wheat fields at the Central Experimental Farm, Civic hospital in background, ca. late 1920s, Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The main successes of the wheat program would come in the early 1910s, when Charles Saunders bred the Marquis cultivar.

Cereal variety testing fields, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Marquis wheat stalks, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The new variety avoided the fall frost by maturing 7-10 days earlier than other strains used at the time, and the flour it produced was excellent for baking. It became popular almost instantly.

Canada West brochure (Back cover), 1930., Government of Canada, 1930/1930, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Marquis was so successful that by 1918, it made up 80% of the Canadian wheat crop. Northern US states were also growing the new variety.

Cereal Greenhouse and crop of Marquis types. Cereal Division, Central Experimental Farm, April 12, 1926., Unknown, 1926/1926, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Farmers from across the country were also invited to send samples of cereal seeds (especially wheat) they planned to plant the following season, so a small amount could be test-planted in a CEF greenhouse. Frost at the end of the growing season could have potentially damaged the seeds, and these tests could save the farmer a failed crop.

Wheat sample, nearly all germinated, all strong, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The program was popular, receiving hundreds of samples each year. This image shows a sample of wheat that was deemed “strong”.

Potted trees in a greenhouse for breeding work, Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown. by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

A variety of trees were also planted in CEF greenhouses, and carefully bred for desirable qualities. Methods for planting and breeding were depicted in several slide series.

Two men planting trees, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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These trees were transplanted to the CEF’s fields, or sent to Western farms as a way to prevent soil erosion.

Soil testing by two men, who are holding a corer and shovel. Small mounds of earth are placed before them, Central Experimental Farm, ca. 1920s., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Photographs of CEF staff activities could also be paired with illustrations and paintings during lectures or presentation, enhancing their impact.

For example, these men collecting soil samples could complement a painting of leaves grown in various soils, demonstrating the impact of nutrients on growth.

Carrot leaves, grown in phosphorus deficient soil, Central Experimental Farm, February 12, 1941., Arthur Kellett, 1941/1941, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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“Abrasive peeling of turnips” by a female worker at the Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Documentation of new preservation techniques was also a priority for the CEF, especially during the Second World War.

During that time, CEF scientists concentrated on vegetable dehydration and preservation experiments.

These products were vital to the war effort and were sent overseas with soldiers as lightweight and non-perishable sources of nutrition.

Early attempts at such preservation, however, were unpalatable.

Three forms of turnip: fresh, dehydrated, and compressed, Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Farm scientist Dr. Mary MacArthur was in charge of the vegetable dehydration experiments. She was responsible for researching and improving the quality of dehydrated food.

Strawberries being prepared for freezing in pint cartons, Central Experimental Farm., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The CEF was also at the forefront of the frozen food industry, testing, perfecting, and documenting methods for preserving a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Slicing peaches for freezing in pint cartons, Central Experimental Farm, September 1945., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The new techniques were carefully photographed and turned into slides for demonstrations.

Watercolour painting of a Stark’s Delicious apple, whole and halved. (1922) by Faith FylesCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Artistic License

Between 1920 and the late 1940s, the CEF employed a full-time botanical artist to sketch and paint important breeding experiment samples, especially the work with apples and ornamental flowers.   The first artist—Faith Fyles—was a trained botanist whose talent for painting allowed her to quickly and accurately document the subtle differences in tone and colour that resulted from experimental cross-breeding, soil nutrient changes, and other factors. Following her retirement in 1931, Fyles’s work was continued by another talented painter, Arthur Kellett.

Page from Principal Poisonous Plants of Canada; False Hellebore (leaf, flowers roots); Death Camas, Seed-vessels of Death Camas., Faith Fyles, 1920/1920, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Fyles’s artistic talents were first revealed during her time as an assistant seed analyst for the department of Agriculture. She painted samples for colleagues, and in 1920 published her research and illustrations in a 100-page departmental bulletin called Principal Poisonous Plants of Canada.

Later that year, she became the resident botanical artist at the CEF and continued to paint a wide variety of fruits, flowers, and other plants.

Page from Principal Poisonous Plants of Canada; Purple Cockle., Faith Fyles, 1920/1920, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Painted Flamingo sweet pea, Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm. (1932/1932) by Faith FylesCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Illustration of a whole and halved Pyrus niedgwetzkyana apple, Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, October 21, 1921., Faith Fyles, 1921/1921, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Many of Fyles’s paintings focus on apples—a major focus of experimentation in the first fifty years of the Farm’s existence.

Pioneer McIntosh, Faith Fyles, ca. 1920, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Hybridization, selected breeding, fertilizer and pesticide application produced many apple varieties well suited for Canadian growing conditions.

Documentation of the new Lobo apple variety (McIntosh cross-breed), using watercolour paint., Faith Fyles, 1938, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Dominion Horticulturalist, W.T. Macoun, was heavily involved in this pursuit, and some of his varieties, such as the Lobo pictured here, are still grown today.

Painting of Rosybloom crabapple blossoms, date unknown, post 1933., Arthur Kellett, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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One of horticulturalist Isabella Preston’s most enduring legacies to the CEF is the Rosybloom crabapple trees she cultivated. The bright pink blooms—as well as the fruit—were attractive to passers-by.

Painting of Rosybloom crabapple blossoms named “Erie”. Bred by Isabella Preston, ca. 1933., Arthur Kellett, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Botanical artists such as Fyles and Arthur Kellett painted the blooms and resulting fruit.

Rosybloom crab apple tree, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The trees were also documented through hand-coloured slides.

Apple trees in bloom, unknown date., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Painted Omaha plum branch, Central Experimental Farm, August 19-25, 1920., Faith Fyles, 1920/1920, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Other fruits, such as grapes and cherries, were also cultivated by the CEF’s talented horticulturalists and painted by Fyles and Kellett.

Painted Viking raspberry plant, Central Experimental Farm, July 25th-29, 1927., Faith Fyles, 1927/1927, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Painted Arnout strawberry plant, Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, June 26–29, 1921., Faith Fyles, 1921/1921, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Painted Millicent Rosa, Central Experimental Farm, Arthur Kellett, 1933-06-16, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Painted Chrysanthemum William Clark, Central Experimental Farm, 1930s., Arthur Kellett, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Painted Campanula bellidifolia (bellflower), Central Experimental Farm., Arthur Kellett, 1934/1934, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Hand-coloured photograph of Isabella Preston’s experimental garden, showing the lily seed beds at the Central Experimental Farm, 1932. (1932/1932) by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Practically Picturesque

With its orderly gardens, buildings, and well-planned fields, the CEF was to be a glowing example of what a Canadian Farm could be—a beautifully landscaped space that included high-yield crops as well as ornamental flowers and gardens that a successful “gentleman” farmer could one day hope to achieve. The slides, photographs and paintings produced by the Farm supported this vision.

The rose garden, part of the Central Experimental Farm’s Ornamental Gardens after they were moved in 1911., Unknown, 1915/1915, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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The CEF’s first director, William Saunders, saw it as a model farm, where beauty and science came together. Breeding ornamental flowers is a precise and skilled task, and Saunders devoted almost a quarter of the Farm’s acreage to the gardens.

Garden of Phlox flowers at the Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Heavily influenced by 19th-century romantic ideas about nature, Saunders believed that the best way to encourage farmers to keep up their vital work was to surround them with nature (though this nature was to be organized and sanitized).

Rose bushes, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Little girl in the garden, Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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As director of the Horticultural Division, W.T. Macoun was responsible for planning these gardens, ensuring the flowers bloomed on a seasonal rotation.

Layout for perennial flower border, Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown (ca. 1911)., Unknown, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Macoun designed a perennial border, as this diagram demonstrates, as a colour-coded guide to this cycle.

Perennial border (planned by Macoun), Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown (ca. 1911)., Unknown, 1911/1911, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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These two slides would have been shown in sequence, demonstrating the plan and then the resulting beauty—nature carefully arranged by man.

Rose garden and pergola, Horticultural Division, Central Experimental Farm, date unknown (ca. 1911)., Unknown, 1911/1911, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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Under Macoun’s direction, many varieties of flowers such as sweet peas, irises, and peonies were planted each year, complemented by hedges, ornamental shrubs, and trees. The results of this work were stunning, and remain features of the Farm’s gardens today.

Macoun Memorial Garden, midsummer., Unknown, 1936/1936, From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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In the early 20th century, the CEF gardens were popular with nature lovers, amateur photographers, and those seeking respite from the expanding urban landscape.

Hand-coloured glass Magic Lantern slide depicting the gardens at the Central Experimental Farm, date unknown., From the collection of: Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
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People posing for a picture in front of the tulip garden at the Central Experimental Farm. Date unknown. by UnknownCanada Agriculture and Food Museum

Since the early days of the CEF, Canadians have been inspired by the work being done there. Photography and painting complemented the scientific and educational goals of the CEF, while also showing the artistic side of the Farm’s research efforts. By using a combination of these techniques, the CEF could create customized visual documentation to suit its needs.

Credits: Story

Created by the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, 2017.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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