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The Festival


The Stratford Shakespeare Festival was established in 1953, and for the first three seasons plays were performed in a large tent. Raising the tent’s main pole for that first season is commemorated in sculptures on Festival grounds that must be among the most photographed of Stratford landmarks.

Several streets lead to The Festival Theatre and Gardens, but the most scenic approach is Lakeside Drive on the south side of the Avon River, passing the small island named for Tom Patterson, who is honoured for his inspiration to establish a Shakespeare Festival in Stratford.

Photo: George McDermott

In the Festival's first season, a tent had been erected to use for performances (a Tent Master from Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was hired to supervise).

After three years of performing in the tent, Festival Theatre opened in 1957. Gardens were a major feature of the theatre almost immediately. In fact, some visitors see Festival Gardens as stars rather than supporting cast. Harry Jongerden, former head gardener, said he was greatly pleased when an occasional garden visitor would ask, pointing to Festival Theatre, “What’s that building?”

Photo: Doug Reberg


Visitors often enjoy meeting Stratford’s famous swans and Canada geese, and many other species of waterfowl may make a pit stop in migration.


A word of caution: Swans and geese present fine photo-ops, but it is wise to keep a respectful distance and they are very unlikely to appreciate any efforts to pet or touch them.

Photo: Doug Reberg

There is always something to see in Festival Gardens. Tulips, narcissus and other early varieties bloom in March and April, when plays are still in rehearsal.

Peonies bloom in late spring and early summer, while day lilies put on a mid-summer show. Ornamental grasses flourish throughout the year.

All gardens near Festival Theatre are well worth a visit, but three major attractions are The Arthur Meighan Gardens, The Elizabethan Garden and The Carpet Garden.

Photo: Doris Dodd

The Arthur Meighen Gardens were created in 1996 as a gift from the Meighan family. Arthur Meighan (1874-1960) was born not far from Stratford, and twice served as Canada’s Prime Minister (1920-1922; 1925-1926).

There always seems something new blooming in the Meighen garden. New varieties are planted each year, old ones return, and there are probably always surprises as plants come and go. 

The tree at the foot of Meighen Garden is a Ginkgo thought to be over 75 years old. (Ginkgo trees are sometimes called living fossils because there is evidence they grew 270 million years ago.) Plants growing under the Meighen Ginkgo are all native to Ontario.

Photo: Doug Reberg

Did You Know?

One feature of the Meighen Garden all visitors seem to admire is the pond with its grasses, water lilies and other aquatic plants. It is sometimes said Festival water lilies open the first Monday in May, when bagpipes play before the grand opening.


Each year, bagpipers play to mark the opening night of the summer theatre season in Stratford's four theatres. As an added attraction, some years ago a bagpiper had the misfortune of falling into the pond during the grand opening performance. The timing of the lilies’ opening (or the dunking) is not something to be counted on every year, but the water garden is always an attraction that visitors often pause to enjoy and photograph.

Photo: Doug Reberg

The Elizabethan Garden is a short walk from The Meighen Garden. Theatre patrons often enjoy the Elizabethan Garden before curtain and during intermissions, but it is well worth exploring on its own. 

The fountain in the centre of the garden is inscribed with a quote from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: 

These flow’rs are like the pleasures of the world


Most plants in the Elizabethan Garden were known in Shakespeare’s time and many are mentioned in his writings. The Kitchen Garden features edible plants and herbs, and the Witch’s Garden has plants that were once believed to induce or prevent charms, such as Valerian (All-Heal)..

Photo: Doug Reberg


The Carpet Gardens probably date from the mid-1880s. Design, planting and maintaining a carpet garden is very labour intensive, and the intricacies of Festival carpet gardens is convincing evidence of why that garden design is not more widely seen.

By Stratford tradition, the Festival Head Gardener chooses (and plants — and maintains!) the carpet garden design. In recent years, the designs have all featured symbols related in some way to a few of that season’s plays.

Photo: Doug Reberg

Visitors often spend quite a bit of time identifying, decoding and debating which plays the designs probably represent.


This is a close look at one of Head Gardener Anita Jacobsen’s designs for the 2019 season.

Look familiar?

garden 2.jpg

Here's a hint: Think scary…

Photo: Doug Reberg

A final note. If you happen to visit the gardens when Ms. Jacobsen and her team are hard at work with meticulous mowing, trimming, thinning and weeding, stop for a moment to let them know you appreciate their efforts and the beautiful results.


It’s a long season for them with few days of leisure, and they will value your encouragement.

Photo: Fred Gonder

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