Nature and artifice at the Mackenzie King Estate in Kingsmere

Years ago I worked during the summer months at the Mackenzie King Estate in Kingsmere, Quebec.  It was the best of all worlds.  We began early in the mornings (we  had to be in Chelsea for pick-up before 7 a.m.) and finished at 3.  The mornings that year were  unseasonably cool and each day I remember wearing a fleece jacket and long pants to keep out the chill.  There were three student horticulturists, of which I was one, working at this Estate, which included King’s earliest property that overlooks Kingsmere Lake and the Speakers residence, known as the ‘Farm’. 

King lived either in Kingswood (the cottage next to the lake) or Moorside (the residence he later purchased and embellished with rolling lawns and formal gardens) between 1903 and 1943, and then moved to the ‘Farm’ until his death in 1950.

The landscaping work that we undertook at Moorside included planting up the parterre with a selection of annuals that was chosen by the designers at the NCC offices.  The plantings here attempted to remain true to what Mackenzie King and his staff would have planted in the first half of the 20th century, formal in spirit and colourful in display.  Almost 20 years ago we also used the silver edging known as lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) to frame the beds; this plant was regularly clipped to prevent the yellow flowers from forming and detracting from the classic effect.

Roses were also planted around the birdbath but almost always suffered winter dieback so were straggly and never the generous bloomers everyone hoped they would be.  The annuals we used were more traditional choices, like marigolds and red salvias and I recall these beds were never as voluptuous as those I witnessed the other day where blue salvias, flossflower and a dwarf variety of orange zinnia made a striking show.  At the edges were a selection of reds and burgundy annuals including purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) and amaranth (Amaranthus caudatus). 

But I have one beef with the perennial beds:

Okay, two:

The challenge in a perennial garden, especially one in such a natural setting, is to avoid any evidence of controlled maintenance.  Staking should be an art and the gardener should attempt to make all evidence of it invisible.  This perennial border is indeed due for an over-haul, which includes perhaps a change of plantings, some rejuvenation (i.e. division and replanting) and perhaps a more adventurous display.  I think there has to be a balance struck between being a slave to historical accuracy and generating visitor excitement. 

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