Gardening came naturally to me. There is a family photo of 2-year-old Neil holding a spade gazing curiously at the soil. As a kid, wandering in natural areas keep me outside learning on the land. I was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Primary school was a bit of a haze, greatly complicated by changing schools several times in England, a pattern that continued when I arrive in Canada in 1957. In 1963, I entered into one of the most progressive education systems of the times; a vocational art program at Cedarbrae Collegiate in Scarborough. I studied everything from figure drawing to illustration and design. For four years, I spent most of my school time on art with five professional artist teachers. This spawned a strong appreciation for composition, colour, perspective and scale.
My first summer job at a local gardening centre (Solty’s), began with loading patio stones and soil bags into cars but at fifteen I started to learn plant names. First common and then Latin and I was promoted to sales, where my job was to help customers with information on what will grow where and how it will develop.
Immediately after graduation I left for Expo ’67 where I was hired by The United Church of Canada to establish a coffee house for travelling youth in Longueuil. I was guitarist, entertainer and manager. It was very successful, but city inspectors suggested that charging 10 cents for coffee constituted running a commercial business in a residential area and shut us down.
Autumn saw me in Toronto working as a commercial artist. Six months was all it took to convince me that I belonged outside and not at a drafting table all day. So I returned to the garden centre, working 80 hours a week saving for the requisite European trip. The mother of one of my art student friends (Daniel P. Izzard) suggested that with my interest in horticulture, I should visit “Auchincruive” an agricultural college in western Scotland. I did visit and then enrolled in an intensive 24-month course in horticulture and bee keeping. The decision to enroll was made easy by the fact that about 50% of the instruction would be outside, in the gardens, greenhouses and apiary.
Auchincruive was built as a private estate in the late 1800’s. Gertrude Jekyll designed the landscape, the most celebrated garden designer of the time. The experience of living, working, studying and relaxing on this magnificent estate remains important to my designs to this day.
Home in Toronto in 1971, I worked for Solty’s as landscape foreman and job supervisor (I was 22) and then with landscape architect, the late Victor Bohus. Victor was hugely talented and knowledgeable. He mentored me and we developed a great friendship. He was the first design/build landscaper that I met and he had a profound affect on my future career.
The college experience had piqued my interest. I wanted more education. Trent University accepted me and within a few weeks, I met Carolyn. We were married in 1972 and have enjoyed every day together since.
Trent University sits on the banks of the Otonobee River and is surrounded by woods, meadows, drumlins and eskers. Ron Thom, a brilliant Canadian architect, took full advantage of the magnificent setting and masterfully designed and placed the buildings at Trent. Environmental Studies was not as yet an available discipline, but that is essentially what I studied; biology, botany, ecology, geography and humanities. This worked particularly well when it came to summer job prospects. I was encouraged by a professor to apply to Parks Canada for a interpretive naturalist position. For the next three summers, I worked at Point Pelee Natural Park as an interpretive naturalist. Work included guiding tours of the trails, woods and beaches; writing, photographing, preparing and presenting slide presentations about the natural and cultural history of the park. Summer jobs do not get any better than that.
After university, I worked as an environmental consultant and graphic artist for several provincial and civic agencies, but the indoor deskwork made it a challenge for me. Then out of the blue, I met a couple of guys that needed someone to design gardens. Within weeks Acme Environmentals was born.
This zany, outrageous landscaping company was an immediate success, but this partnership wasn’t for me, so I left and formed a new company with my dear friend Corrie Scheffer. Corrie left the firm after the first year but he continued to design and build many cutting-edge wood structures for many years. My wife, Carolyn, and I then started Neil Turnbull Ltd. Success was very fast in coming. The much-respected interior design, the late Jim Robertson, referred us to many great clients and referrals remain our sole source of business.
Since 1978, NTL has designed and built hundreds of gardens in southern Ontario and farther afield. Some are notable institutional gardens such as The Arthur Meighan Garden at the Stratford Festival Theatre, The Max Tanenbaum Garden on the Princess Margaret Hospital’s 16th floor rooftop and The Spiro Family Garden at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre. Most recently we have completed The Vertical Crevice Garden at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. Our practice frequently brings in artists and sculptors for special works. The majority of our projects are private gardens for urban homes, large and small, farms and cottages, many for 2nd or 3rd generations of the same family. To these clients we provide design, construction and maintenance at a superior quality; living up to our motto “Concept Completion Care… Fine Gardens since 1978”.
In 1987, we purchased a 100-acre farm near the town of Sunderland Ontario. The house was falling down, but we chose to renovate because it was ideally located with fine views and screening and it had an excellent pond site clearly visible from the house. On Easter weekend in 1987, just after we “moved in”, we served lunch to 42 people who dropped by and chose to stay. This was the first of a great many happy gatherings at Hedgerow Farm.
The original barn was destroyed by a tornado in 1957, then the rebuilt barn burned down in 1972, leaving us with a stone foundation, the perfect spot for a protected sunken garden. The original small fields were surrounded with protective hedgerows, a rarity in southern Ontario. Many thousands of trees and shrubs in 600 varieties have been planted since. Our peony collection of 300 varieties fills a flour-acre field. Hedgerow is a certified organic farm. It’s rich and varied wildlife habitat with dense woods, open dry fields, low peat wetlands, original wind breaks and many miles of planted hedgerows provide food and shelter. This created habitat has had a profound beneficial affect on the wildlife population. When walking the fields, you will notice flocks of birds of many species and throughout the warm seasons, the sounds of frogs, toads, insects and birds can best be described as deafening.
The pond site was excavated and turned into a 2-acre lake with 2 islands. . It is stocked with an ecologically balanced mix of fish that have filled many a fry pan. The water is clean, clear and excellent to swim in. In late summer, hundreds of swallows visit in the early evening. The swoop over the water occasionally dipping their beaks to drink, capture insect larvae and wash. There are so many birds in the air that you can hear the gentle flutter of the swallow’s wings and even smell them as they fly by.
Since the large pond we have dug seven more ponds, a mud flat and an aquatic nursery area. These much smaller ponds are spread all over the farm. They were dug to dry up wet corners and edges of fields and to create more habitat. These ponds are all fed by surface water, that is rains and melting snow and by spring water that rises from under the natural clay bottom.
In 2007 we installed our first lined ponds, more correctly called a Natural Swimming Pool System. Natural swimming pools use no chemicals and no fossil fuel heat. They rely on circulating water, gravel beds and a special mix of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants to clean the water. We started digging in early April, finished the liners, rocks, boulders and gravel by early May and started swimming in soft, clean water by early July. Natural swimming pools are an excellent option in our chemically sensitive, carbon-loaded environment.
We began with a falling down house and a simple pole barn that had sheltered the cows. The house was renovated and an historic barn was later added. This gave us the necessary office and residential space. The cow barn was turned into a wood shop and a drive shed was built for equipment storage. The Gallery Building was built for antiques, displays and events in 2005 and in 2011 we added a warehouse with mechanical shop
Hedgerow Farm has grown and matured to become an exceptional event site in a built parkland of rich and diverse ecology.