When I first visited Les Quatre Vents in mid-June, 2011, I knew I’d be seeing one of Canada’s most famous gardens for I had been reading about it and seeing pictures of it for years. The experience was much more than expected, full of surprises as I was led (as part of a group) from one section to another, never knowing what would be next. That is the charm of Les Quatre Vents and the article I wrote about it continues to be one of most visited posts on Riding the buses.
The man behind the garden, Francis Cabot, was in the house when we were there but not well. Indeed, he died a short while later, on November 19, 2011. When I left that day I bought his book about the making of the garden, The Greater Perfection, and read it from cover to cover.
I vowed that I would return, fearing the garden would soon be closed to the public. It’s not so easy to visit, however. The garden is only opened to the public four days a year; it’s located in La Malbaie on the St. Lawrence River, a 140 km drive north of Quebec City; and you have to purchase a ticket well in advance and arrive 15 minutes early for a two-hour tour that is conducted entirely in French.
I returned this summer, this time in mid-July. The tour was much the same as before although the guides didn’t “herd” us quite so much. This time I bought a CD called The Maturation of the Gardens at Quatre Vents, an illustrated talk narrated by Cabot that focuses on five of the 32 garden elements. In it, Cabot confirms that he wants the visitor to discover the landscape gradually, which he does by framing a view and directing the eye. He believes it creates an appetite for more.
I already had the appetite. This time I wanted to peak ‘behind the curtain’.
Cabot was most interested in balancing the relationship between what he refers to as the contrived and the natural landscapes. The obstacle, he said, was that it takes a long time to accomplish this. The hedges that appear in many garden photos, for instance, required years of effort before the desired results were achieved: leveling the ground, enriching the soil, staking the paths, planting, trimming. The Hawthorne hedge that was planted to obscure the Goose Allée (perennial walk) took seven years of growing and clipping before the corridor was enclosed and 20 years for the effect he wanted to be fully realized.
Cabot said achieving “esthetically satisfying” green spaces and textures was really more intriguing to him than the plants and flowers, and as I think back on both visits I realize that I was not overwhelmed by any great displays of colour. It was his mother who had developed the White Garden, influenced by the work of Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West. This is a rather small rectangular area with a pool in the centre fed by a canal that leads to the statute of Pan. On this visit I realized the pool had been designed so that the water was level with the surrounding lawn, as had all the other pools there.
The Goose Allée was the first addition Cabot made to the garden that he inherited from his parents. From mid-July to early August, the Goose Allée is full of delphiniums that love the cool, moist maritime climate. Cabot said they grew “bigger, better and showier” each year, with individual clumps seeming to last forever. He would plant them in groups of colour, from the purest white to the truest blue.
There is another perennial walk—the Perennial Allée—that has a greater variety of blooms.
It took some time to achieve the look he wanted in the shade borders, reassessing and editing the beds for years. The picture today is rather serene: red lilies, white lilies, martagon lilies, astilbies, drifts of hostas. The goal was simply to create a series of moments from May into August.
The hedges and waterways were two of his great achievements, along with the Pigeonnier and the Japanese Pavilion. He spent seven years just threading five artificial streams through the woodland that dominates the property.
The Japanese Pavilion is found at the low end of the ravine, separate and hidden from the rest of the garden. A steep staircase leads down and at the foot of the staircase is a stone path. The slope is steep and shored up with thuja logs. There’s a waterfall in the background.
It took seven years to build and assemble the Japanese Pavilion. While this was happening, Cabot and his team proceeded to build a waterfall close to where the pavilion would be placed. This required raising the pond, collecting and placing large weathered boulders down the slope like giant stepping stones, developing nine small waterfalls that would spill into pools and basins, adding gravel and soil and plants. When they were finally done, the builder of the pavilion said the pond’s water level had to be raised another 4 inches, which meant resetting each and every enormous stepping-stone. That dedication to excellence says much about Francis Cabot.
The meadow leading to the Potager that had earlier been filled with lupines was much quieter in July, with only spots of colour.
The Potager did not disappoint and delphiniums (surprise, surprise) filled several beds.
Cabot says that it is best to visit a garden “alone or in silence” and to slowly consider each element and its relation to the garden as a whole and to the surrounding landscape.
Can’t do that at Les Quatre Vents. Perhaps a third visit?
The full description of Les Quatre Vents
The River Drive along the St. Lawrence in Charlevoix, Quebec
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
Riding the buses 2014