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$25-million Aga Khan garden construction half finished

Thursday, 2017, July 13
By Juris Graney

Construction of a multimillion-dollar, Islamic-inspired garden at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden has officially reached the halfway point. Reporter Juris Graney toured the site Wednesday to get a feel for the project that’s being funded by a $25-million donation from the Aga Khan, the hereditary imam or spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims.
From the beginning
Initial design work on the Aga Khan Garden began six years ago, followed by early stages of construction starting on the grounds of the former Devonian Botanic Gardens in the summer of 2016.
When the 5.2-hectare project is open for the Aga Khan’s diamond jubilee celebrations in July 2018, it will become the new centrepiece of the 97-hectare gardens located about 30 minutes from the heart of the city. 
Masonry masterpiece
One of the key features of the garden — which will be the largest in North America — will be the stonework built by up to 30 stonemasons from Edmonton's Scorpio Masonry, who are working in three separate crews to bring the site to life.
The particular stones used in the construction — Algonquin limestone from Ontario and granite from Quebec and the Rocky Mountain region in the U.S. — were chosen to create a distinctive geometric mineral border for the garden, while the plants will add a flourish of paint strokes of seasonal colours, said Nathan Foley, project manager for U.S.-based landscape design firm Nelson Byrd Wolz.
Forming the foundation is some 23,000 cubic metres of locally sourced sand from a nearby site.
The life of plants
Having increased the size of its greenhouse by 20 per cent to enable all the regional plants to be propagated locally, the university will also use the new garden as a research project.
The garden already has a 30-year database of plants and what happens to the flora in the Islamic garden will join that catalogue.
“The chronicling of the failures will be every bit as important as the successes,” said garden director Lee Foote.
About 20,000 perennials, annuals and ground cover; 10,000 wetland plants; 3,000 shrubs and more than 500 trees will populate the site.
In warmer climates, date palms and pomegranates are predominantly used, but because this is the most northerly Islamic garden in the world, those bigger feature trees will be replaced with the likes of Brandon elm, native tamarack, hawthorns and mountain ash. Fruit trees will feature the likes of cherries, apples, crab apples, pears and apricots.
“In some sense, it’s a giant experiment,” Foote said.
Foote said a research program will look at wetland plant propagation that may help restoration projects around the province.
The centrepiece
At the heart of the Mughal-style garden, which is about the size of six Canadian Football League fields, is the chahar bagh, a central courtyard divided by walkways into four grassed areas surrounded by those native plants.
Encircling that highly formalized garden and the less formal butan, an area that will feature fruit trees and a large lake, will be a wall of trees that will essentially create a garden within a forest.
Foley said they took Islamic design elements from across the centuries to create a “21st-century Islamic garden that felt at home in Edmonton.”
“(We took) cues from the past and interpreted it with materials and plant life and technologies of today,” he said.
Foote said he expects attendance to increase to about 160,000 people from between 60,000 to 70,000 annually within the first two years.

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