Step Into Canada’s Garden Of Eden

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If Quebec’s Maritime region — in particular the Gaspesie Peninsula — isn’t on your short list of must-visit locales, it should be. This is a gem of a destination, noted for its unspoiled sandy beaches, networks of trails threading through pristine forest lands, scenic mountain landscapes, tidy villages and creative cuisine that depends on locally-sourced ingredients. Foodies as well as those who crave outdoor activities (such as cross country skiing, hiking, mountain biking or kayaking) revel in this peaceful venue that sits astride the St. Lawrence River. But the botanically inclined also gravitate to this area, relishing in the colorful blooms and other sensory delights blanketing Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens that’s located more than 200 miles north of Quebec City. This historic garden sitting at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Métis rivers bursts with some 3,500 different types of specimens, both native and exotic. It’s named for Elsie Reford, a self-taught horticulturist who was way ahead of her time as she reimagined her forested fishing camp as an expansive garden for her own enjoyment. (It opened to the public in 1962.) Her passion, persistence, love of plants and natural curiosity all served her well as she embarked on her botanical journey, beginning in 1926.

Nothing about this garden can be called ordinary, including its annual International Garden Festival. After all, you and your entire family will be able to explore more than two dozen contemporary and often avant-garde garden installations that all fit in with this year’s theme: “Magic Lies Outside.” (How appropriate, considering, as we all struggled with the pandemic lockdowns and now the gradual reopenings, it’s the outdoors that remains a balm for the soul.) And, this is hardly a “no touch” festival. In fact, the installations are quite interactive, something that will be a magnet for the younger members of your family. This 22nd edition of the International Garden Festival runs from June 26 to October 4. 

I recently spoke with Alexander Reford, the great grandson of Elsie Reford — he’s been director of the gardens for the past 26 years — about Elsie’s vision and inspiration, the design concepts, what makes the gardens so appealing and what Alexander expects for the future. (I also spoke with Chef Boucher Frederick who helms the onsite restaurant.)

How did the location make it difficult for Elsie to create this verdant masterpiece?

Over the course of her long life, Elsie became an expert plantswoman. She detailed her work in garden diaries that she kept religiously every day during the summer. “The gardens,” she wrote, “are geographically placed where a climate of forbidding severity might well be expected.” To her surprise, she found the property ideal for the cultivation of exotic plants. Today, its proximity to the St. Lawrence and the Métis rivers provides generous levels of atmospheric moisture. In winter, the average snowfall of six or more feet offers a fleecy blanket that protects the gardens. 

As horticulturist Frank Cabot found on his beautiful garden property and estate on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, our environment is perfect for most hardy perennials. So, botanical delights are many and the blooming period is much prolonged by the cool night air and recuperative opportunities offered by a maritime environment. 

Where did Elsie take her inspiration from in designing her gardens?

Gardening was by no means Elsie’s first calling. She had been coming to Grand-Métis since the early 1900s to fish the pools on the river. She also rode horseback, canoed and hunted. When an operation for appendicitis curtailed some of these outdoor activities, her doctor suggested gardening as a genteel alternative to fishing. During the summer of 1926, she began laying out the gardens and supervising their construction. The gardens would take 10 years to build and would extend over more than 20 acres. With the exception of a flagpole, a cedar hedge and a tree-lined driveway, the property had no landscaping when she embarked on her life’s work. It was, after all, only a fishing lodge.

Elsie’s gardens were very much her own creation. She deliberately eschewed professional help: “…there has been no landscape architect to head off mistakes, costly in time and work to remedy but each one of them teaching something,” she wrote in an article published in 1949. Perhaps, as a result, her gardens are remarkably free of formality and ornamentation and show few obvious quotations from other gardens.

How did the stream figure into Elsie’s design? 

Rather than create a series of garden rooms adjacent to the house, she chose instead to develop what is really a series of gardens. They are nestled alongside the banks of Page’s Brook, a stream that threads its way through the property from east to west, wending its way to the Métis River. “Nowhere is there any formal planting,” she wrote, “there are no flower beds, the gardens having been fashioned more or less to follow the twisting and curving of the little stream with short stretches of woods left here and there between them.” The result is strikingly original. Elsie designed a path which meanders from one garden to another, occasionally interrupted by bridges that span the brook.

Can you discuss The Long Walk, the only rectilinear garden Elsie designed? 

There is only one straight line in the gardens. “There is perhaps a very slight approach to something of a formal nature,” Elsie wrote, “in the double herbaceous border of over 300 feet in length, hence its name “The Long Walk.” From its seven-foot path, between the sloping borders each 12 feet wide, there is a vista across to the far blue hills of the north shore.” It was here that Elsie was at her most flamboyant. The Long Walk is in bloom from the moment the snow melts until the first frost, with a careful selection of plants providing a succession of bloom. Lilacs are succeeded by peonies, delphinium, lilies and roses, a progression of bloom and fragrances, supplemented by a judicious selection of perennials and the occasional annual. The quantities were sometimes prodigious. Her order book for 1932 shows that she planted 862 peonies that autumn.

Were colors important to Elsie as she collected flowers for her gardens?

Judging by the palette of colors found in our large collection of photographic slides from the 1940s and 1950s, her palette was trad-classic: like the Chintz on English country furniture from Country Life magazine, such as soft yellows, peach tones, quiet reds and so on. The exuberant blooms were those of the Tibetan blue poppy and the gentians, alpine flowers that bloom in both Oxford and Cambridge blue colors. 

Which flower is considered the most rare in the gardens?

The Meconopsis betonicifolia or Meconopsis Baileyi (aka Tibetan Blue Poppy) is probably the most rare and most exceptional of our plants. The Blue Poppy Glade was where Elsie displayed her rarest and most enchanting plants. The Himalayan blue poppy is one of the marvels of the plant world. Native to the Tsangpo Gorge in the southeast corner of Tibet, it grows at altitudes of 10,000 to 13,000 feet. The English plant explorer, Frank Kingdon Ward, who discovered the plant in 1924, described its most outstanding characteristic: “…its flowers were flawless, of that intense, almost luminous, turquoise blue that one associates with the clear atmosphere of the roof of the world.” The Himalayan blue poppy has enchanted and mesmerized gardeners since the plants that were raised from the seed that Ward brought back from Tibet were introduced to gardeners at a meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society in London in 1926. 

The provenance of Elsie’s collection of Meconopsis provides an insight into her contacts and talents. Intrigued by the enthusiasm that the blue poppy generated, Elsie was among the first gardeners in North America to attempt to grow them, using seeds obtained from Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens in the 1930s. In 1946, Ward wrote about receiving “a letter of thanks from a lady in Canada, enclosing a photograph showing hundreds of plants flowering in her garden on the shore of the St. Lawrence estuary. ‘So well does it grow that to walk along a path between gently sloping banks entirely veiled with the exquisite blue poppies is like going through some ethereal valley in a land of dreams.’” The “lady” was Elsie Reford. 

With more than a dozen “themed” gardens peppering the landscape, how did Elsie name these?

Her gardens were highly individualized, named in relation to topography (such as High Bank) or the plants (for example, Azalea Garden). Each garden had its own particularities. Over time each of them was given a name. And, by naming a garden, she bestowed on it both a personality and a permanence. 

What is notable about the Alpine Garden?

An alpine garden is a bit of a catch-all phrase. In her garden, it meant a scree garden, where the flaky stones gave a home to diminutive alpine plants and an important collection of gentians.  These alpine plants, native to high mountain regions the world over, produce extraordinary flowers. They are rare and difficult to find and Elsie took pride in developing one of the few gentian gardens in the world. Her collection was substantial. 

How has the landscaping of the Floral Terrace, which was once wild as Elsie preferred, evolved?

Many of the “wilder” parts of the gardens have been domesticated, either to accommodate visitors (and wheelchairs, strollers, garden tractors, and so forth). The Floral Terrace, however formal, is also an acknowledgement to Elsie’s collecting, home to a collection of more than 50 species of peonies that are remarkable in their variety, color and display. 

What types of birds might be spotted in the gardens?

We are fortunate in having a range of birds, including shoreline and songbirds as well as migratory species that stay for several weeks in the spring and fall. The latter are snow geese mostly, but also many of the hawks and other raptors that stop en route north to the Canadian arctic. They often stop here mid-way to gain strength to cross the St. Lawrence, which is 35 miles across here. 

We have a large colony of hummingbirds for whom the gardens are a great source of nourishment, just as they are for our colony of honey bees. 

We are working (by re-landscaping a gravel pit) on a major project to protect sand swallows and we are active in various bird population studies, particularly relating to the shoreline birds and swallows, suffering from major habitat loss and a decline in populations. 

The Bird Garden welcomes 50 or more species of birds and a few families of companion creatures, notably red squirrels, chipmunks, muskrats and beavers. And, there are the many insects and bats for whom the nearby pond is a life-giving source and guarantees their very survival. 

How are the gardens both rooted in history yet still able to look to the future?

We are constantly finding inspiration in the past to drive our vision forward. For instance, the agricultural autonomy of the estate in the past (vegetable gardens, crops, dairy and beef cattle, sheep and chickens, experimental crops, and so forth) is inspiring us to think of ways to be more productive and more creative, and to make permaculture and agricultural innovation key to our future.

The same goes for Elsie’s approach to land stewardship and protecting the watershed of the Métis River and Page’s Brook. These are contemporary notions but in our case have a 100-year- old history. This helps us develop relationships with the Nature Conservancy and donors to our land stewardship projects to create a vast greenbelt of pristine and productive spaces adjacent to the gardens. 

How do the gardens remain true to Elsie’s vision, and how have they changed?

To manage a historic garden is to search for a happy balance between the legacy of the creator and the march of time. Preserving a historic garden is fraught with challenges — even more pronounced when the founder is an ancestor. In our case, we have been slowly removing the accretions which have hidden the treasures of the gardens, replacing furniture and fencing, and restoring some of the lost plant collections. The government played an important, indeed crucial, role in preserving the gardens. Since 1995, some parts of the gardens have been fully restored. Other areas remain untouched, waiting for the right moment and adequate resources. 

Now also a showcase for contemporary gardens, the core of the property remains the historic gardens created by Elsie Reford, a remarkable creation by an extraordinary woman. Just as they were during her lifetime, the gardens are in constant evolution.

Did Elsie have a favorite garden?

She had a favorite spot in the gardens, but not a favorite garden. It’s a bit like asking parents if they have a favorite child: it’s always a difficult question to answer properly. Elsie would have probably dismissed the question or avoided answering it. Or she would have said that the gardens evolve as the season embraces them, their beauty changing with every week in the horticultural scenography that she so carefully designed. 

Her favorite spot is where she is often photographed sitting, notebook in hand, looking over the high bank, making notes of needed improvements to be made in the fall and spring. 

Do visitors have a favorite garden?

Visitors’ favorites vary depending on the time they visit and what is in bloom: early June, the Crabapple garden; mid to late June, the Azalea Garden and the Blue Poppy Glade; July and August, The Long Walk; and at the end of the season, the Vegetable Garden. The International Garden Festival is a crowd favorite for families. The Festival is like a breath of fresh air, offering a place to leap, run, climb, jump, flip and more.  

What areas in the garden do children love to interact with?

All of our sculptures are touchable and feelable. Many of them bear the patina of touch and popularity, particularly where the bronze has been rubbed smooth. We love the idea of children touching and interplaying with sculpture, something that is not possible with many or most plants. 

How were the sculptures selected?

The sculptures in the gardens are a curated collection, selected by a variety of methods. Some are on loan from the local contemporary art museum (Musée Regional de Rimouski); others are on loan from the Canada Council Art Bank. Some are site specific or created by the artist with no particular site in mind. The result is a contemporary sculpture walk that is rich in variety and offers visitors of all ages a chance to explore contemporary sculpture in an outdoor setting. 

What can visitors expect from the latest edition of the International Garden Festival?

“Magic Lies Outside” is a play on the title of a book by Harvard landscape historian, James Stilgoe. It is the Festival’s response to COVID-19 and the imperative to imagine ways to connect our visitors with the natural world after a year or more of near-total confinement. 

The outside world is magical and it is made more so by the creative talents of contemporary designers. The five new gardens and multiple installations will offer 60,000 or more visitors moments of magic. At the same time, the 2021 Festival will illustrate our strong conviction that the challenge facing the modern world will best be met by seeking creative solutions to the problems highlighted by COVID, where the lack of outdoor space, the confined quarters of seniors’ residences, the absurd waste of time endured by workers heading downtown to their place of work, can and will be solved by designing better cities, more intelligent infrastructure and reflecting on the ways in which the outdoors is a key ingredient to human happiness and human health.

How many countries are represented at the Festival? 

The first edition was held in 2000. Since then, we have featured/hosted more than 500 designers from 15 countries (Canada, USA, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Iran, Switzerland, Sweden, Morocco, Brazil, South Korea, Vietnam and Australia). For this year’s Festival, we are featuring five new projects with designers from Canada, the USA, Sweden and France.

What do you believe Elsie would have thought of the garden today given the addition of contemporary sculptures and avant-garde gardens from the International Garden Festival?

Elsie had a very large collection of art, assembled with a careful eye and the assistance of dealers like Joseph Duveen and the Wildensteins. Some of the works in the collection (Leonardo, Monet, Bronzino) were masterpieces, others were poor forgeries. Aside from occasional works by living artists, most of the collection was of historic paintings and portraits. Her taste was very conservative and fit the comfortable collecting habits of the period. She made an exception for contemporary Swedish glass, Lalique and Tiffany silver. 

Contemporary gardens would not have been part of her vocabulary and she probably would have thought that the so-called “conceptualist gardens” as not being gardens at all — as many have few or no plants — something she would have found in contradiction to the long garden tradition she loved and admired. 

Sculpture would perhaps have been a different story. She displayed contemporary sculpture in her gardens (a bronze statuette of a woman leaning on her rake by Quebec artist Suzor-Côté). She would have had a special affinity for the works in bronze or the noble materials that she associated with monuments and sculpture. 

Where does Chef Boucher Frederick get his inspiration for his culinary creations?

According to Chef Frederick: “The inspiration behind the menu at the restaurant is mostly influenced by the plants we grow in the garden, but also by the local producers who make our work so much easier by having such great products during the summer. My travels have inspired me. I’ve worked in many restaurants in Montreal, Paris and Lille and worked with amazing chefs who passed along their knowledge.”

What culinary ethic or philosophy does Chef Frederick subscribe to?

His philosophy in the kitchen is to work as much as possible in an eco-responsible and local way, by encouraging the small producers who make the richness of our land. He’s all about honest cuisine that respects the product and is inspired by daily arrivals and wild picking. “I try to live the territory and I am committed to the development of a sustainable and resilient food ecosystem,” says Chef Frederick.

What do you hope visitors take away from a visit to the gardens?

Our general wish is that visitors leave with a smile on their face, a sense of wonder about the beauty of the natural world, an appreciation of the toil and experimentation that has contributed to the creation and sustaining of the gardens for nearly 100 years and an awareness of the unique role that landscape architects and designers from various fields are now playing in creating cities that work, countrysides that thrive and systems that contribute to the health of the planet. Plants are at the heart of what we offer to visitors and their adaptation to our climate gives us hope about the future of the planet and the challenges ahead for us all.


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