Elsie Reford inherited Estevan Lodge and the property surrounding it from her uncle. It was primarily a fishing lodge for salmon fishing was excellent in the area. It is located on the St. Lawrence River, 350 km east of Quebec City. This is in the Gaspé Peninsula in one of the northernmost parts of eastern Canada. It is where the river starts to turn into a gulf and where the land is poor.
In 1926, Elsie started to make a garden there. She was 54 years of age. For the next 30 years, she cultivated 20 acres of the property, which was a remarkable feat. She would arrive each summer by train from Montreal, accompanied by her servants. In Montreal, she was better known as a philanthropist and musician than as a gardener.
When Elsie started this venture, she knew nothing about gardening, not even “the difference between a dandelion and a daisy.” She had no training of any kind in garden design and was hundreds of miles from the nearest nursery. She decided to do it strictly for her own enjoyment and was not interested in engaging professionals. Instead, she hired local farmers and fishermen to help her.
She gave neighbouring farmers salmon in exchange for leaves that she would turn in compost. She dug up native species from fields in the backcountry and ordered bulbs from abroad. She gradually developed a talent for understanding the needs of each plant and was successful at growing plants in her zone 4 that were usually hardy to zone 6. She did this by keeping detailed records of everything she planted. Her husband, an amateur photographer, captured it all on camera.
Each garden was given a name and linked to one another by a path. She installed the occasional bridge and the odd bird bath. In the end, what she accomplished was to take a spruce forest and shape it into gardens that boasted one of the largest plant collections of the day.
Elsie was obviously bold, hard working and innovative. In the end, she was a pioneer in Canadian gardening, both a gardening expert and a plant collector. She amassed collections of lilies, gentians, roses, peonies and primula. She introduced azaleas to Quebec and kept them alive by planting them in protected pockets. She developed one of the few gentian gardens in the world. She is perhaps best known for her success in growing the Himalayan blue poppy—a rare plant that is very difficult to grow.
It is interesting to learn about Elsie’s rather elitist life in Montreal. It seemed such a contrast to the one she lived at Estevan Lodge, where she not only spent her days gardening but also fishing, canoeing and hunting. There were some traditions, however, that she extended from city to country such as dressing for dinner, the women in long dresses and the men in black tie.
The gardens are open to the public every day from the beginning of June to mid-October. Take the time to visit the museum that is in the lodge itself. There is also an excellent garden shop. I was there in mid-June so the photos here reflect what was in bloom at that time. The garden website has a section indicating what should be in bloom each month as well as other useful information. Elsie’s great grandson, Alexander Reford, is director of the garden and author of the book, Elsie’s Paradise: The Reford Gardens. It is an excellent read and available in the garden shop.
Consider combining a visit to this garden with Les Quatre Vents, which is on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. Both were built by innovative gardeners and are an inspiration to all.
Speaking of innovation, the International Garden Festival for contemporary gardens is an annual event beside the Reford Gardens, so have a look if you’re there when it’s on.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits: Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2011