My favorite of Québec’s spectacular array of gardens is situated outside the picturesque village of Métis-sur-Mer, north of Rimouski and below the Gaspé. It’s not just the labyrinth of streams and English-style flowerbeds, romantic and overflowing, or the fields of rare blue poppies shimmering under the fleeting summer sun. At the Jardins de Métis, where an historic lodge and garden is combined with an annual competition of landscape artists, much of the joy in visiting lies in the gaiety and laughter the International Festival of Gardens evokes.
Imagine hundreds of potatoes lined up on pine shelves within a wooden subterranean root cellar. The festival entry called Pomme de parterre is as intriguing as a science experiment: the potatoes are connected by wired electrodes to a set of speakers that—without any other source of energy—emit tiny screaming sounds prompted by the proliferation of sugars in the growing spuds. There’s no way around it. The wooden shed—resembling, in its subtle way, a concentration camp dormitory—is a vegan’s tragicomic nightmare.
The Jardins de Métis, outside the historic summer resort of Métis-sur-Mer, an area also known as the Reford Gardens. Their founder, Elsie Reford, who was the heir to Estevan Lodge—a salmon fishing lodge built by Sir George Stephen, “baronet of Montreal and Grand-Métis” (one of the original CP Railway barons and the first president)—started cultivating them in 1926. Out of the Gaspé Peninsula on the south shore of the Bas Saint Laurent, Elsie Reford fashioned a marvelously English set of rock gardens and flower beds into which she also successfully introduced thousands of unusual species—including, most famously, the Himalayan blue poppy.
Now the gardens are managed by Reford’s great-grandson Alexander who cleverly introduced the International Festival of Gardens—now in its 10th year—in a previously unused part of the villa’s extensive grounds. (The Festival was the inspiration for the recently mounted Ephemeral Gardens in Québec City, QC, celebrating its 400thanniversary.)
Gardens are beloved in la belle province and throughout the Bas Saint Laurent and the Gaspé, on the south shore, and the Charlevoix region on the Saint Lawrence’s northern side. They celebrate memory and belonging, but also the task of actually living in a territory that is by nature only reluctantly settled. Quebeckers’ gardens bloom in a riot of colour during the short season in which they are possible, and there is nearly always a vegetable patch or an organic farm nearby. These now supply not just Quebeckers’ kitchens, but the proliferation of gourmet restaurants of the region—from Québec City to Métis-sur-Mer and Tadoussac, where chefs make a point of making their imaginative best of local ingredients.
A simple, circular route—from Québec City through the Kamouraska region as far as Métis, and then, taking the ferry across the river at Rimouski, back along the North Shore through the Charlevoix and into Québec City again—reveals Quebec gardens in their astonishing variety. And no more so than in this year of the provincial capital’s 400th birthday celebrations. The traveller who makes Québec’s horticulture his raison d’être can visit a plethora of that evoke the Old World (French and English), as well as others that amuse and even surprise with their imaginative variety of contemporarymessages, for great gardens have always invoked their designers’ visions of paradise, but it is a modern turn of the landscaper’s art that now their messages are political, too.
The classic gardens of Québec City—the Botanical Gardens of the University of Laval, the Joan of Arc Garden within the Plains of Abraham (the park of profound historical contemplation that was a gift to the city on the occasion of its 300th anniversary, a century ago) and the Saint Roch Gardens within the old town—present the horticultural city in its more formal, handsome and civically oriented aspect. Theirs is the sensibility of a place that, having to govern, sees paradise in order.
But as part of the city’s ongoing celebrations of its 400th birthday another, more contemporary kind of garden is sprouting in unanticipated corners.
The Visionaries Garden—the creation of Franco Dragone (a previous Cirque du Soleil director and creator)—is a mounting series of vegetable planters boxed in concrete and acrylic blue, illuminated at night, that dress the steps of the Musée de la civilisation in the lower part of the city. A short walk away, across the busy Rue Dalhousie (the street that separates the old town from what had been the river’s edge three centuries ago), the 11 themed plots of the Ephemeral Gardens—selected from several hundred international entries—are planted on a site that had previously a parking lot.
One, called L’autre rive (“The Other Shore”), uses stone paths winding through the whispering greenery of high willow saplings to rejoice in nature’s shape-shifting; the sort of immersion in the plant world that pioneers, 400 years ago, would have experienced. Today’s urbanite, likely to be deprived of such an encounter, will relate to Plage (“Beach”), a humourous take on an inner city garden, comprised of a series of sandlots and brightly pastel-coloured painted low benches cut in ergonomic shapes kind to those wanting to take a nap in the sun. Another, Rouages (“Cogs”), invites you to turn a crank on a gear system that pulls a plow seeder tilling the ground below in a marvelously evocative recollection of the province’s settler beginnings.
Downriver from the city, the lines of the old seigneurial fields, hearkening back to the earliest days of la Nouvelle France, are still evident in the long and narrow fields that stretch from farmhouses a kilometer inland to the very border of the river (repeated, as if the great Saint Lawrence was a blue mirror, on the hills of the far shore). These strips of land that, so beautiful to behold, were distributed to French-Canadian seigneurs in such a way that vital access to the highway of the water was guaranteed to all. Francis H. Cabot is descended of one such family. He the owner and designer of Les Jardins de Quatre-Vents—20 acres of gardens on what used to be the family seigneurie overlooking the Saint Lawrence from La Malbaie, in the Charlevoix region, on the north shore.
The gardens are considered by many to be the finest in Canada. They are certainly among the most eccentric, filled with exuberant folly and recalling not just the Versailles-like gardens of 18th century Europe, or England’s Capability Brown, but the lush and fantastical vegetation of New Zealand—where Cabot lives for part of the year—the comedy of Alice in Wonderland (human-sized bronze statues of frogs with musical instruments that play Dixieland and another quartet that plays chamber music as you approach) and the intriguing mysteries of Freemasonry. On a secret door in the atrium of the Pigeonnier, a three-storey wooden pigeon house, Cabot has inscribed an Alexander Pope poem promising that: He Gains All Points, Who Pleasingly Confounds,/ Surprises, Varies and Conceals the Bounds.The gardens do just that—baffling and entertaining those who visit on one of four permitted days a season.
But despite such delights, the playful Jardins de Métis’ are still the ones that capture my fancy like no other. In one entry, retained from an earlier year, sheets of tinted Perspex in a patch of birch have an Orson Welles-like effect in the redoubled glade. In another, amusingly titled Passe-moi un sapin, Rita (“Pass the pine tree, Rita”), visitors are encouraged to take oversized plastic cutouts of green trees—ones that mimic the pine air fresheners that hang from car mirrors—and to “plant” them in slots in an area of authentic forest.
Afterwards, have a fine meal in the airy dining room of the magnificent lodge. Visit Elsie’s rooms, upstairs, or take a walk along the garden paths she made and try and imagine what she thought she was building.
It is this exhilarating mix of the traditional and the very modern, Québec in both its envious aspects, that make the Jardins de Métis the perfect place to conclude—or begin—your wonderful Saint Lawrence horticultural journey.
* Details about Frank Cabot’s Jardins au Quatre Vents, and applications to visit on the one of four days the site is open to the public can be made through the website of CEPAS, the Centre Ecologique de Port-au-Saumon, at http://www.cepas.qc.ca/jardin.php