Stories from the Land
The landscapes in which we embed our lives are inscribed by the stories of previous generations, whose dependence on the soil leaves tangible traces in our present-day topographies. Royal Roads University sits upon land whose rises and falls, forests and clearings, plants and trees speak to a long history of human relationships to a bountiful environment. Growing The Farm at RRU gives us all an opportunity to (re)acquaint ourselves with the stories of those who have tended the soil before us and, hopefully, to learn from their wisdom.
First Nations Stewardship
The Royal Roads site has long been a source of rich sustenance for coastal peoples. The Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations, whose traditional territories include the lands in and around Royal Roads, are original stewards to these ecosystems and have engaged in tending and harvesting from local plant communities for thousands of years. Countless species of berries, bulbs, and edible greens have been traditionally cultivated by the Lekwummen and continue to thrive in the meadows and forests on site, as well as a wide variety of culturally significant trees such as Cedar, Fir and Hemlock. While coastal First Nations were largely displaced from their traditional territories following colonization, the Lekwummen have continued to engage in traditional harvesting practices within their territories, including at Royal Roads, whenever possible into the present day.
The Dunsmuir family farm
Following European colonization and settlement of Vancouver Island, the lands around present-day Royal Roads were used variously for both farming and small-scale industrial operations including a sawmill and a tannery. Following purchase of the property in the early 1900s, the Honourable James Dunsmuir commissioned architect Samuel McClure and landscape architects Brett and Hall to begin construction on what he envisioned to be a model farm and manor house. While it incorporated all the elements of a traditional Edwardian country estate, Dunsmuir invested in the latest modern conveniences for his farm operations, pushing a long history of aristocratic land stewardship into a new era.
Like many farms in the area, the Dunsmuir estate took a diversified approach to food production to ensure efficient use of land, self-sustenance, and well-balanced profits. Dunsmuir directed his employees to establish a dairy, piggery, and poultry operation in addition to the production of fruits, nuts and vegetables. The farm’s produce provided an ample supply of food to estate residents and surplus was sold in the local community. Milk, poultry, and apples, in particular, were major farm commodities.
In keeping with the traditions of a landed estate, the forests were stocked with game for sport hunting and the ponds offered habitat to trout populations encouraged by the installation of fish ladders to move between bodies of water. While fish and game were mainly for the sporting pleasures of Dunsmuir and his guests, historical documentation suggests that the labourers who lived in a camp in the northwest corner of the property also consumed forest game.
Kitchen garden and Conservatory
Fruits, vegetables, and nuts were cultivated in the four-acre kitchen garden located in the walled garden. The walls, still standing today, offered protection to crops not only from grazing animals but equally from the sharp winds and cold winter temperatures. The warming effect of the sun on the wall surface made it ideal as a growing structure for espaliered fruit trees, encouraging them to ripen early by capturing and releasing heat. Apple, plum, white mulberry and pear trees lined the pathways, and many of the original trees still stand (and bring a crop) today. Some of the apple varieties grown included: King of Tompkins County, Grimes Golden, Yellow Gravensteins, and Red Bietgiheimer, each of which had its own distinct flavours and uses.
In front of a large glasshouse and conservatory stood vegetable beds planted with a variety of crops, while to the west of the glasshouse stood rows of raspberry bushes and, most likely, a sizeable strawberry patch. During World War I, several estate staff spent their spare time making jam from those berries as part of the war effort. While documentation of vegetable cropping schemes in the Dunsmuir period is scarce, previous gardeners have left behind tantalizing inscriptions in the form of pencilled notations on the interior supports of the glasshouse, giving us small glimpses of their growing systems.
Up to the Present Day
Following the sale of the Dunsmuir property to the Dominion Government in 1940, which repurposed the site as a Naval Training Establishment and, later, a tri-services Military College, food production at Royal Roads became less consistent but never entirely extinct. Various commandants kept allotment gardens, as did some of the gardeners which were retained as staff.
More recently, under the auspices of Royal Roads University, an allotment garden for staff was established and continues to be popular. Members of the gardening team have worked hard to maintain the health of Dunsmuir-era fruit trees and have sought to replace them as needed with the help of valued donors. In the formal gardens, edible plants have long been incorporated into annual planting schemes both as an homage to Dunsmuir’s farming vision and as way to demonstrate the beauty and viability of using food crops in ornamental garden design, a much needed encouragement as the world faces increasing risks to food security. And, Camosun College Horticulture Program, operating on site in the walled garden for the last two decades, has a well established vegetable garden that is both teaching tool and source of produce for local charitable organizations.
Growing the Farm at RRU
As our team works to grow The Farm at RRU, we look to this long history of food production for inspiration and guidance. The Dunsmuir-era walled garden has provided us with a growing space that is ripe with potential thanks to the work of previous generations of gardeners who enriched the soil and maintained a vibrant collection of fruit trees. To the generations of Indigenous land stewards who have lovingly tend plant communities across this landscape, we are grateful for the wisdom that their work continues to impart in its deep understanding of non-interventionist forms of cultivation and harvest and the essentiality of human-non-human relationships of reciprocity. It is our hope that The Farm will continue in the tradition of topographical storytelling even while it works to incorporate the teachings of stories already told.
Thank you to the authors-researchers of these stories, Emma Lansdowne and Jenny Seeman.
Emma Lansdowne is a gardener at Royal Roads University and a member of the Guiding Committee. She is also currently a PhD candidate at McMaster University whose research explores the intersection of plants and colonial/post-colonial histories with a specific focus on gardens as contact zones and sites of resistance.
Jenny Seeman has been archivist at Royal Roads since 2015. Originally from the UK, she has worked for close to 20 years in Canada in a wide range of archives across various provinces. A consistently rewarding part of Jenny’s work is to find the people who exist in the shadows of official records and surface their stories.