Last week I visited two outstanding Canadian gardens. Both are north of Quebec City along the St Lawrence River with a 65 minute ferry ride plus a short drive separating them.
The first is Les Quatre Vents, in English, the garden of The Four Winds. It is a private garden, open to the public for only a few days each year (more about that later). It is situated near the village of La Malbaie, Charlevoix County, in a river valley that curves down to the St Lawrence with the Laurentian Mountains to the west. This garden enjoys a zone 4 maritime climate with foggy days, cool summer evenings, lots of rain, and deep snow cover in winter. In their book In a Canadian Garden, Nicole Eaton and Hilary Weston say it is probably the best known garden in the country. Photos of this garden can be found in many international gardening publications.
The garden (there are actually 24) was created by Francis Cabot, an American whose family bought land there in 1902 when it was a fashionable summer retreat. The garden covers about 20 acres and is made up of nearly 30 compartments, many of them separated by walls of clipped cedars. Cabot is no ordinary gardener. He was Chairman of the New York Botanical Garden, Treasurer of the North American Rock Garden Society and the founder of the non-profit Garden Conservancy that is devoted to the preservation of exceptional private gardens in North America. His garden at Stonecrop in Cold Spring, New York is now a public garden encompassing 63 acres. His book, The Greater Perfection, about the history and making of Les Quatre Vents, is considered by the Oxford Companion to the Garden to be “one of the best books ever written about the making of a garden by its creator”.
Les Quatre Vents revisited (mid-July, 2014)
The River Drive along the St. Lawrence in Charlevoix, Quebec
The garden was built over time without an overall plan. Gardens and garden features were added on either side of the lawn called the Tapis Vert, which is the garden’s main axis. There are the requisite perennial borders (and a white garden), shade borders, a meadow garden and a potager. What I found so charming were the constant surprises. Every time I turned a corner there was another remarkable view. There are so many different rooms and features that garden historian Tim Richardson said its motto should be ‘Why stop there?’
Cabot extends the views by drawing your eye to distant mountains, woods, and fields that surround his property. So while the garden may be ‘contrived,’ it is part of the wider landscape and there is a strong sense of place. Many of the plants are native species, dug up from the nearby hills. Perennial borders are incredibly lush, even with so many hedges close by. I later read that in the main perennial walkway, Cabot dug a two-foot-deep trench and removed all the offending roots before placing a 30-inch galvanized sheet-metal barrier between the hedges and the beds. Then he added copious amounts of compost, peat moss, and rotted cow manure. No wonder the borders look so grand.
The garden has its whimsical moments. There are frogs playing instruments and the music they play can be Dixieland or Mozart depending on how you move under a certain beam. He also has a tolerance for dandelions!
Cabot was at the house when we visited and even though he didn’t lead the tour I felt he was with us for as he said, “If a garden is to reflect the spirit of the creator it really has to be the result of a personal rather than a professional effort.” It is a very personal garden.
The title of Francis Cabot’s book on the making of his garden at Les Quatre Vents is The Greater Perfection and indeed his efforts to achieve perfection are extraordinary to say the least. His evolving master plan was always ambitious.
Cabot wanted to adapt some of the elements of the Taj Mahal into the garden, particularly the large rectangular pool centered on a terrace and leading to a handsome building. It took him 15 years to do that. It is not the Taj Mahal, of course, but instead a pigeonnier—a place where pigeons nest—that he found photos and sketches of in a book published in 1926 called Small French Buildings. In front of the pigeonnier is a long, narrow pool and on each side of the pool is an allée of cedars. Along the outer side of the cedars he planted little-leaf lindens to provide added height and seclusion.
There are four entrances to the pigeonnier, producing eight vistas. Cabot wants people to first see the pigeonnier from a particular direction, which is over its reflection pool. To maximize the impact, he leads visitors along a challenging path in the woodland and blocks their view of the pigeonnier with a lilac and cedar screen. The visitor then turns the corner and there it is, a complete surprise. In the group that I was with, just about everyone yelled out (in French), “Oh my god, I can’t believe it!” There is a passageway under the pigeonnier where you can look out on all four approaches and read panels with verses such as “The present time alone is in thy power”.
Some of Cabot’s surprises are just simply delightful, such as the Lombardy poplars that form a circle about 36 feet in diameter in a grassy meadow. He calls this a ‘rondel’, a concept inspired by Harold Nicolson’s work at Sissinghurst in England. Most of the rondels that Cabot created at Les Quatre Vents are circles of cedar at the end of a long corridor of hedges. The one made of poplars is not formal but instead playful. Cabot says it is “a place for virgins to dance by the light of the moon or for young and carefree children to lie flat on their backs and watch the clouds go scudding by across the opening at the top of the wavy, leafy columns.”
There is a lake that was created by damming a winding stream. It is named Lac Libellule after the dragonflies that buzz over it in midsummer. The lake curves so that it is not entirely visible from one vantage point. Cabot, of course, wants you to ‘discover’ the lake, to be surprised when you see it. To maximize the impact, he has made the approaches to the lake formal, from either the Tapis Vert—the expanse of lawn—or the Thuja Allée—the cedar walk that extends an eighth of a mile with large-leafed clumps of rhubarb framing it. The landscape around the lake, by contrast, is naturalistic and informal and a simple red Japanese bridge draws the eye.
Cabot uses petasites japonicus var. giganteus extensively around the lake, a plant he refers to as “the lazy man’s gunnera”. It is also a plant that is a challenge to contain.
Upstream from the lake and at the far end of a small circular pond is a pale blue Chinese moon bridge that makes a perfect oval when reflected in the water below. The bridge is a prototype of two bridges Cabot saw in Guilin, China while there on a garden tour. He came back with photographs that captured every detail of the bridges and had one built. The bridge itself is enclosed in a woodland so that the experience of seeing and crossing the bridge is not distracted by any “extraneous views”.
Cabot says he is a firm believer that Japanese gardens are best situated around a temple in Japan. He wanted to have an authentic Japanese structure at Les Quatre Vents, however, “in a setting that was peaceful and Asiatic in spirit.” It took him 10 years to achieve that. The pavilion was specially made in Japan over two years and a master carpenter constructed it on site during the following three summers. In a bit of an understatement Cabot says that “patience is an important attribute for those who choose to make new gardens”.
In a rectangular space close to the house (30 by 100 feet) he made three separate garden rooms that are very different in theme and appearance. One is the salad garden, which has lots of herbs (as well as mothballs). The second is the bread and knot garden that is framed by cedar hedges of varying heights with two little leaf lindens behind that are trimmed in the same shape as the roof of the bread oven. The third is the guest garden with cedars shaped like furniture. The actual guest bedroom looks out on this garden, which is totally green and rather peaceful.
Russell Page, the author of the classic book Education of a Gardener, visited Les Quatre Vents for what Cabot says were “two nights and one long, exhausting day, which reduced me to a nervous wreck”. Page was not hesitant to speak his mind, making statements such as “What possessed them to do that?” and “Get rid of that fuzz”. There is no fuzz left at Les Quatre Vents. It is a very sophisticated and well planned garden and it’s also lots of fun.
Francis Cabot says it was his love for alpine plants that dragged him “from a normal existence to plants.” It happened in 1951 when he sighted ‘Bevan’s Variety’ and there was no turning back. So his first major undertaking was building stony structures in the garden where alpines prefer to grow. All the terraces and walls were made of random-size square-cut limestone from a local quarry. Alpines grow best in gravelly scree but so do weeds. He came up with the idea of planting the alpines in planting pockets which proved to be a relatively weed-free solution. He captures the process in his book in “The rock-garden wall-builder’s 10 commandments.”
There is a stream running through the property and Cabot shaped it into a series of descending pools and canals. Then he developed the gardens on either side of the stream. He actually kept this area low maintenance with groupings of paper birch, shadbush, spruce, pine, larch, aspen, sugar maples, and mountain ash.
There are four curving shade borders extending some 60 m (200 feet) separated by small paths. When you leave the shade gardens you pass through a cedar grove and come upon a rope bridge that extends to the far side of a ravine. The ravine slope is sufficiently steep that it needs to be shored up, in this case with cedar logs.
The woodland garden was developed at the same time and over a period of seven years he added five artificial streams. He said that he tried to grow just about every woodland perennial he could find and adds new species every year. Meconopsis betonicifolia (blue poppies) grow well here. He has over a hundred varieties and species of primula alone and has worked out the bloom cycle so that there is continuous and harmonious colour. Since primulas love lots of moisture he has an elaborate irrigation program with sprinkler heads up in the trees so that the woodland is kept constantly moist. After 15 years, he says the woodland is a settled garden.
Cabot wasn’t in a hurry in creating these 24 gardens for he believes that “the best long-term results often spring from the elements of a garden growing together over a number of years and being tinkered with and amended as needed”. He also says that if you want an immediate effect you will miss out “on the anticipation and joy to be derived from the maturing of the landscape.” This garden is a joy and should not be missed.
Les Quatre Vents is made up of 24 small gardens (jardins) so there is much to see:
|Jardin de la Boulangère||Thuja Allée (cedar walkway)||Pigeonnier Garden|
|Guest Garden||Lac Libellule (lake dragonfly)||Japanese Pavilions|
|White Garden||Stream Garden||Perennial Allée|
|Tapis Vert (Green Carpet)||Arch||Potager|
|Rose Garden||Shade Borders||Meadow Garden|
|Goose Allée||Pool Room||Lac des Cygnes (Swan Lake)|
|Thuja Rondel||Oval||Bridge of the Four Winds|
Visiting Les Quatre Vents
In a zone 4 climate, spring is late and fall is early and perennials tend to bloom in a more concentrated fashion than further south. I visited the garden at the end of June and was rather surprised that the lilacs were still in bloom and not the peonies. However, it was just the right time to see the blue poppies.
The garden was open on four Saturdays this summer. Tickets went on sale at the end of November and I understand they sold out fast. We purchased our tickets through Le Centre écologique de Port-au-Saumon website. The site is in French but easy to navigate. We simply selected the time that we wanted to go and the number of tickets (the maximum was four). The tickets (non-refundable) were mailed to me. The tours were organized with military precision by volunteers and we were asked to arrive 15 minutes before the scheduled time. The tours were in French but it didn’t really matter because we were there to see the garden. At the end of the tour I was able to buy Francis Cabot’s book The Greater Perfection and have read it from cover to cover!
The garden is in La Malbaie which is 147 km northeast of Quebec City on the north side of the St. Lawrence. You should consider driving alongside the river (Route 362) from Baie-Saint-Paul to La Malbaie (50 km) for the scenery is breathtaking. Baie-Saint-Paul is one of the oldest towns in Quebec and has many charming restaurants and countless art galleries. The area around La Malbaie has long attracted tourists from New York, Toronto and Montreal when the elite would arrive on the luxurious White Ships and stay at their summer residences or at the prestigious Manoir Richelieu. There are other lodging options including camping. We stayed at a charming bed & breakfast (Le Richelieu) that is right in the town itself. The owner of the B & B recommended Le Patriarche Restaurant Bistro for dinner and I must say the food, service, and atmosphere were simply outstanding.
Once you’ve come this far you should consider visiting another outstanding Canadian garden: Jardins de Métis, also known as the Reford Gardens. It’s on the other side of the St. Laurence, in the Gaspé Peninsula. It is easy to get there for you just catch a ferry from Saint-Siméon to Rivière-du-Loup and continue north for about 150 km.
Photo credits: Sylvia Fanjoy
By: Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2011