I was reminded by a reader the other day that I had promised an additional entry on this iconic garden.  I had visited it way, way back in 2013 but somehow my second installment never made it onto the page….

IMG_4719Let’s try again.

Time and space made me realize I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was left unsettled by this garden.

It is perched high above the surrounding valley, with views reaching down to the St. Lawrence in what was, and remains for many, the playground of the well-heeled.


When the gardens at Les Quatres Vents were created in the last quarter of the 20th century, Francis Cabot’s horticultural, historical and architectural aspirations were reflected through these landscape expressions.  This level of excellence was made possible through wealth and high-society connections and Cabot’s creations mimicked the famous gardens in England, France and Japan, drawing upon (literally, physically and ideologically) the most influential gardeners, artisans and horticulturists of the day.

All this was taking place during the gardening boom in North America, when the work of contemporary British gardeners like Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, Christopher Lloyd and Graham Stuart-Thomas were being heralded for the first time to us colonials.  More than this, the historical gardens of British icons like Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West and Russell Page were being documented in lush picture books that beginner gardeners began to devour (much to the delight of the big publishing houses in New York and London).  Cabot’s hedges channeled those in almost every English estate garden, while his languorous half-circle stone staircases reflected those designed by the famed British architect and “taste-maker” Edwin Lutyens.

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He sought their advice and held to it strictly …..

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…witness the rose garden under-planted with pinks (Dianthus), a la Russell Page’s instruction.

There are allees, precisely clipped hedges and regimented sight-lines galore, which in my mind are a stereotypical fetish of the male gardener.  Think Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote Manor fame.

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But I ask you, when is rigidity visually pleasurable and when is it claustrophobic?



When is repetition satisfying and when is it predictable and formulaic?



And when is monumentalism awe-inspiring and when is it simply exhibitionism?



There were moments in this garden when I couldn’t help wondering, “Where is the authentic spirit of the place? Where is the place I can sit and feel at peace near the mouth of the St-Lawrence, without feeling the uncomfortable imposition of prestige and power?”

There were moments when I thought I had found that place …. but the question remained:  were these choreographed moments where the garden designer had anticipated the blurring effects of time or simply nature triumphing over artifice …?  And did it matter?

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In this new 21st century world where we are loosening our grip around nature, letting plants be what they intrinsically are without shaping, coddling, orchestrating and overseeing, it was the moments where wildness seemed to win where I found the most pleasure…


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But there were also dream-like “garden” moments that were clearly the result of intensive construction projects.  The relative instant gratification they must have provided Cabot is almost breath-taking.  Take his homage to the Japanese garden.

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Cabot’s Japanese garden, like its inspiration on the other side of the world, combines stone, water, temple and plants.  There is no question that it creates a place of contemplation where the furthest thing from your mind is artifice or incongruity (if this Asian art is new to you) …… and yet, in this Quebec countryside, it is exactly that.  It tries but it is not an authentic Japanese garden experience.  But, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?


And then there were the plants….



As Cabot himself characterized it, his garden had to be a “greater perfection.”  A skilled stonemason constructed the terraces, walls and stairs; a craftsman borrowed from Japan built the tea house; visiting professionals were asked for input on the plants and gardens.  Cabot sought instruction from the very best and when he couldn’t do some of the practical stuff himself, he hired those who could.

Many of these plants are moisture lovers that require cool summers and humous-rich soil.  And so, in order to grow these spectacular Asian beauties (Rodgersia, Primula, Lilium, Iris, Meconopsis), soil was moved, trees were planted, water was directed and misters were rigged.  It is the perfect man-made environment.

So isn’t that what a garden is anyway?

Perhaps it’s just sour grapes.


Still, I choose imperfection.  Because I am.

I will visit what is presented as perfection, with my eyes gazing up and down in awe and my mind overwhelmed with the logistics.  But I will feel at home with much less.


Is it over?

Is the gardening season over?

IMG_2060I think not!

There is still plenty of colour that belies the end of the gardening year.

This glorious plant is likely Chrysanthemum ‘Red Chimo’, also known as Arctanthemum articum ‘Red Chimo’ or Chrysanthemum articum ‘Red Chimo’.  Poor chrysanthemum.  The powers that be can’t seem to decide what to call you.  First chrysanthemum, then Dendranthemum, and for this species, now Arctanthemum.  Never mind.  This cultivated variety of Arctic chrysanthemum is dead hardy at zone 3 and is the pink/purple/mauve version of the species that appears as pure white.

I favour the singles since the doubles just remind me of the seasonal annual “mums” that we can find at every garden centre in September.


In contrast, these hardy mums are loose and natural and shrub-like and a perennial that we should all embrace as part of our late season gardens.

Chill.  Don’t cut everything down.

Even this Geranium ‘Rozanne’ wants to shine in the luminous light of September.

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And the wild New England aster is giving its all ….

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There is magic in these seasonal shifts…it is everywhere and doesn’t need our hand.

I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than a fall leaf tapestry…


…even if it’s poison ivy!

I miss our walks in the autumn woods but Skye isn’t able to walk this far anymore.  Another kind of season….shifts and changes.

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Now we rest … and take a load off….


That’s okay; we don’t have to be anywhere…

Goldenrod shouldn’t be roasted and eaten with Thanksgiving dinner

Poor parsnip.  All it wants to do is be eaten.  And it should be!  It is loaded with nutrients, vitamins and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants….but its toxic sap just keeps grabbing all the headlines.


But wait a minute?  What’s this?  The only other yellow plant more maligned than wild parsnip is the ubiquitous goldenrod, Solidago canadensis.  Believed to be the wild botanical culprit that causes our autumn sniffles and itchy eyes — but isn’t! that credit goes to ragweed — goldenrod is actually cultivated in Europe as an ornamental and used in decorative plantings alongside ornamentals (like grasses, sedum, Joe Pye weed as well as rudbeckias, asters and echinacea.)


Best to know the difference between the two — wild parsnip, as well as its relatives giant hogweed (uber toxic sap), dill, coriander, carrot, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, and others — are members of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) family.  They share the same flower-structure, which appears as a flat-topped umbel:


So be aware, but don’t be fearful.

After all, parsnips are yummy with your Thanksgiving dinner!  Goldenrod, not so much.

The last days of summer…

The dog days of summer…



It’s been hot.  Too hot for black dogs.


So hot that shade is barely shade.

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The snappers wind their way, prehistoric bodies smeared green with algae and lumbering from water to grass, grass to water.

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There are surprises in the woods…..I recall someone who went mushroom hunting and ate those he found on a log, differentiated by those *next* to a log.  Was it these that were poison or the others?  Thinking you are right is not the same as being right.  He could have said this as he recovered from his hospital bed.

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…and more surprises in open spaces.  The straw-coloured grasses sway in the shifting heat that at one moment is thick with moisture and then the next, light with hints of autumn.

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The grasses and lily pads are choking the pond, making the ducks work extra hard to power through, bobbing for food and then relaxing on the logs that have been placed there for that very purpose.


  The milkweed is ready.  I cannot resist the urge to pull the silken stuffing from their pods and set each seed free by waving them over my head.  Like nature’s bubble machine.

A house in the country: stone, water and plants

I have written about my friend Jeff’s garden before, first here and then, here.  It has been a work in progress for several years now and just this summer, the work will finally be completed.

And the front of Jeff’s country ‘estate’ will have gone from this:


To this:

IMG_1880This garden has been a labour of love by three people: the homeowner, Jeff, of course who had high standards of excellence and a very clear vision of how he wanted his garden to look and feel; Jo Hodgson, who excels at making stone do exactly what she wants, in a way that is durable, beautiful and totally sympathetic to the landscape around it; and me, who just wanted to play with plants and be a part of this garden creation in paradise from Day 1.

IMG_1399The house and garden in question are on a hill overlooking a lake in the Quebec hills.

IMG_2181The slope from back to front is substantial, necessitating not only a tall wall but also a considerable staircase from the front road to the back door of the house.

IMG_1397This curved stone wall is one of the masterpieces of the project, with monumental stone steps alongside it.


IMG_1879The stairs are now how Jeff envisioned them: wide, generous and planted with mother of thyme and taller scented thymes, so that the progression downward is a sensory experience.

IMG_1881There are chairs placed here and there so that Jeff can come out with his morning coffee and experience the garden from different angles….

IMG_1893The gravel driveway is bound by large stones that hold a series of garden beds.  This raised one holds a tapestry of ground hugging sedums, Siberian cypress, creeping phlox and then diaphanous grasses — these are Molinia caerulea (Moor grass) that will throw up wands of waving seed heads in the late summer….

IMG_0173 This highest bed, closest to the road, includes a Bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata), which although slow-growing, will act as an evergreen anchor to this entry garden bed.

IMG_1886The lower bed closest to the entry patio sports classic perennials like catmint, Siberian iris and more…

IMG_1887…and the bed against the sunny side of the house sports beebalm, achillea and other hot plants, with morning glory climbing up the blue walls.

IMG_1882The bed next to the front door is Jeff’s Ode to Tom Stuart-Smith and his love of juxtaposition:  here we have used the species Hakonechloa macra alongside Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’ and a central pivot provided by an Acer ginnala (a multi-stemmed Amur maple) — as the Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ expired the year before from the harsh winter conditions.

IMG_1883A beautifully large and lusciously chartreuse pot holds a spectacular petunia cultivar called ‘Phantom’, along with an Angel’s trumpet (Datura cv.)  Despite being nipped by the frost in late spring, the display is lush and striking.

IMG_1892The last frontier is the retaining wall at the rear of the house — certainly not a highly visible location but nevertheless, the same attention to detail and precision is going into the construction of this wall.

IMG_1891It is a spectacular project that is coming to a close.  I hope to return in the fall to take some more shots of this beautiful house with its developing garden in the fiery autumn colours.  Stay tuned…

A young family’s garden: space for plants, kids *and* quiet contemplation

An established garden can be both a curse and an opportunity.  A curse because chances are you will be dealing with plants that have been loved and let loose by the previous owners for decades.  And an opportunity because once the jumble is untangled and the potential is uncovered, the new garden can be a gem.  This was the case in a garden that was developed over a period of several years, transitioning from a forgotten, tired space to an active and changing one… I am happy to have helped this transition along…


In the case of this particular garden, four large trees have provided both shade and root competition.  They straddle the west side of the garden — an ancient apple, two green ash and one butternut — and it was a surprise to all that the ash were the first to fail.  As everyone in Ottawa now knows, the last two years has seen the emerald ash borer decimate the green ash population in our city.  It seems few trees have been spared and the two in this garden have also unfortunately joined the list.  Apple trees are prone to every single type of insect and pathogen, but this beloved tree is still kicking.  The butternut is also defying the odds, as many have been succumbing to butternut canker, a fungus that has been killing trees quickly since the 1960s.

When I first came to this garden, the planting under the trees along this fence line included a very mature hedge of French hybrid lilacs with an under-planting of Annabelle hydrangea.  The lilac bushes had long since stopped blooming as they were in day-long shade, but the hydrangea (for which the homeowner had expressed her disdain) were thriving.  You may not know this but Annabelle hydrangea *always thrive*.  I can’t recall how long it took us to dig out both the lilac and hydrangea or how deep our excavations went, but our efforts spanned more than one visit and the biggest challenge may have been distinguishing between the roots of the plants that we were removing versus those of the trees we believed were staying!


Lilac and hydrangea gone: check.  New fence: check.  Shade-loving perennials placed in east-facing bed: check.  Raised stone herb garden converted to small pond: check.

This garden is now a lush oasis with not only a million shades of green but spaces for the homeowner’s small kids to play: the raised pond provides endless fascination, the small lawn a place for them to play and the plants an opportunity to learn their names….as I’m told is actually happening, even with their 5 year old boy!

IMG_1780A blue garden shed is not only a place to store tools and the like, but also a focal point.  More than this, it provides the kids with an opportunity to play hide and seek….and the flagstone patio surrounded by a sunny garden to it’s left provides a spot for the adults to sit and contemplate life — notice the bright red bistro set.


The basic “working man’s” terracotta pots provide an opportunity to make a summer-long colourful display.  This way, the annuals are the show and not their containers.  Stuffed full of plants, the homeowners won’t have to wait to enjoy the splendour…

My heart-dogs: Riley and Skye-dog

In the world of canine cancer, I had not been lucky.

My first dog, Riley, a thick-coated and majestic border collie with a tail that swept up and over her back all day, every day, unless she had no prospects or saw a bath on the horizon, succumbed to a cancerous mass in her chest at the relatively young age of 10.

As my very first dog, all of those adjectives you hear over and over again applied to us too:  soul-mate, best friend, partner and life-saver.  After a childhood of gerbils, lizards and fur pelts to fill the void of a lovelorn existence, longing for a dog but allowed none, she picked me at the ripe age of 33.  Opening her cage at the pound, she laid her head against my shoulder as if to say, “I’m home.”

IMG_5049The symptoms presented as anemia, more properly something called “auto-immune hemolytic anemia”, and results in the body’s immune system attacking its own red blood cells because they sense an invader, in her case, cancer.  We were on a walk and suddenly she collapsed, struggling yet unable to right herself.  I rushed to her and held her down to quell her panic until she calmed and was able to stand.  Once home, she collapsed again and I knew something was horribly wrong.

Treatment consists of blood transfusions to bring the anemia under control and then addressing the underlying condition.  In Riley’s case, a massive tumour under her ribcage.  But surgery was never an option because even with the transfusions, her red blood cell counts never normalized.  We lost her within a month of her diagnosis.  I grieved for what seemed like a lifetime.

IMG_5051Fast forward to today.

The second furry love of my life has lived beyond what anyone has expected after her cancer diagnosis.

As I told her when she came home with me from the pound at the tender age of 7 weeks, she would have some pretty big shoes to fill.


Early on I told her she may never be the “best dog”, but in truth, she is tied for best dog.

On February 25th, 2011 at 8 1/2 years old, she was diagnosed with stage III multicentric lymphoma and underwent six months of chemotherapy.

She has remained in remission since her first week of treatment and next month she will turn 13 — an almost unprecedented 4+ year lymphoma survivor.  She is everything one would ever hope for in a dog — smart, dedicated, funny, loyal, loving, independent, thoughtful, sensitive, eager to please and patient.  She has taught me to be honest, true to my word, consistent and fearless.  And so many other things…


I’m not exaggerating when I say these two wonderful dogs have been the single biggest gift in my life.  Always there, always seeing me as someone they want to spend time with …. always happy to see me.

I am so grateful for them.  Whatever unfolds, Skye-dog can count on me to make sure she is treated with honour and respect …. to her last breath.



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