Shell Shock: Conchs in the Garden

A few weeks ago we visited gardening friends in Lunenburg. Sitting on their back deck was a small collection of old conch shells bleached white with age. The shells had been discovered while they dug in their garden. None of us was surprised to find large Caribbean seashells in a Nova Scotian garden.


Conchs in the Nova Scotian gardens and landscapes is an unacknowledged tradition that I hope you’ll embrace. Here’s what I know.

When I was growing up in central Halifax in the 1950s and 60s a few houses in the neighbourhood had conch shells lining a flower bed. At the same time along the South Shore the practice was more common and often dozens of conchs could be observed in gardens. These days conchs are much rarer. I photographed these two survivors under a front yard shrub near Mahone Bay a couple of years ago.

Indian point, june 2012

Indian Point Road, Lunenburg County

Most of the conch shells I’ve noticed recently were in cemeteries; a landscape that tends not to change rapidly.


Avondale Road, Hants County


Moved away from the lawnmower in Dartmouth.

I’ve heard that volunteers working to restore gravestones in Holy Cross Cemetery in Halifax have uncovered many conchs and then reburied them.

So how did the exotic shells get here and what were they doing in our gardens? I suspect most of the shells are a hundred plus years old. It appears that they came back on the schooners that transported our salt cod to the Caribbean. Along with rum and molasses it could be easy to ballast your vessel with conch shells on the return trip. Huge piles of shells accumulate on the islands where conchs are processed to extract their meat. Here is a present day mountain of shells in the British Virgin Islands.

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The conchs made it into our gardens because of the Victorians’ enthusiasm for the exotic and the picturesque. I had it in my head that decorating with conchs dated back to the 19th century but I had never seen any references or done any research (I don’t do research). Then it occurred to me that maybe shells might show up in old photographs. On the Public Archives of NS site I searched for Lunenburg and one of the first photos that popped up was of an 1890s shot of a tidy house on Pelham Street in Lunenburg.

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Public Archives of NS 1985-562 No 20

When I zoomed in to look at the family members on the veranda there were conch shells on the bottom steps. Then to my astonishment I realized the white mounds along the front of the house were piles of conch shells!  In what appears to be a very tentative garden the major landscape statement are piles of shells. I estimate about 70 to 100 shells.

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Public Archives of NS 1985-562 No 20

A few years later, Captain WH Conrod in Vogler’s Cove had conch shells outlining terraces in front of his house.

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Clara Dennis, Public Archives of Nova Scotia 1981-541 no512

That tradition is alive and observable as a South Shore photo taken this spring confirms.

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Alana Robb

In the long list of things that make Nova Scotia special the garden conch deserves a place. It represents a traditional trade link with the Caribbean and is an enduring decorating element that is rich with meaning.


  •  When I asked my gardening friend John (who also grew up  in central Halifax) about his conch memories he reminded me that coral also made an appearance in Nova Scotian gardens. We remember lumps of brain coral in the Public Gardens in Halifax, near the bandstand, and he sent me a photo of a piece in his yard.

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  • I asked historian Sara Spike (who runs the @SmallHistory Twitter feed) if she had come across any conch references. She sent me a link to Joshua Slocum (the first person to sail around the world solo) who shipped 1000 conch shells to New England to sell in 1905. Slocum also had gathered giant clams as a sales item.
  • A gardener in Yarmouth County sent me a picture of a giant clam and conchs that she has in her garden.
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Kathy d’Entremont

  • A story I love comes from another gardener. She has some conchs in her garden but they were not transported by schooners a hundred years ago. She bought them at yard sales while on vacation in Florida in the early 1980s.
  • If you are tempted to start importing a few conchs to go with the petunias do your due diligence. Queen conch, Lobatus gigas, is a CITES Appendix 2 species and may be subject to import restrictions.

About the author

Stephen Archibald

It’s Stephen Archibald doing the noticing. I’m a huge fan of Nova Scotia’s material culture and cultural landscapes. Twitter (@Cove17 ) made me realize I could share what attracted my attention (perfect for my very short attention) and I’m gratified when folks enjoy my content. Pleased to meet you on the internet.