Dry stone walling, courtesy Jo Hodgson

After spending the better part of a day with Jo Hodgson back in October, and writing about her here, I wanted to share some more images of her work, where space is not at a premium.

When I first met her, I was actually shocked that she is such a slight woman.  How could she possibly physically maneuver all those gargantuan stones and have the fortitude to make a trade where mainly men had come before her?  I learned the answers to these questions during our time together:  bobcat, crowbars, rolling logs and sheer force of will; and, in some part, the comfort and inspiration of having a sister who has followed the same path back in Britain.

I did originally use the word ‘alchemy’ in my newspaper piece because I thought her transformation of a pile of stones into something like this …

… is miraculous.  A pile of stone has no function, no integrity, no presence.  A dry stone wall has become something more than the sum of its’ parts, to borrow a phrase.  It has become something entirely different.

Practicing a craft where you continually work magic like this must be such a joy.  But it is not for everyone.  Many landscapers prefer to work with man-made stone, where each piece gets laid next to the other, much like working with brick.  In contrast, working with quarried natural stone requires that you get to know each piece and help it find its rightful place in the wall or path.

I’m really loving this art and hope that I can continue to encourage more homeowners to consider natural stone in their gardens – crafted by Jo, of course.

Beautiful words have no price

Dominique Browning is a writer, lover of beauty and a passionate voice with an environmental conscience.  I envy her in that she lives in a house overlooking the ocean in New England and has written three books, her most recent released in the spring of 2010 entitled “Slow Love:  How I lost my Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness”.   She writes a blog with the same name as this latest book, Slow Love, and also submits regular pieces for the website of the Environmental Defense Fund.

She was the last editor of the iconic American version of House & Garden magazine, which had an epic run from 1901 to 2007, with a brief hiatus between 1993 and 1995.  In 1995, Browning was hired and the magazine continued for the next thirteen years under her direction, when the features on gardens were particularly inspirational and beautiful.  Her book recalls how she suddenly received notice that she no longer had a job because, according to Conde Nast, the magazine’s publisher, “we no longer believe it is a viable business investment for the company”.  She responded by retreating to her home, shunning people and public functions and tried to figure out who she was now that she didn’t have to go to work in NYC.

Although I’m sure money troubles played some part in Browning’s angst-ridden seclusion, one never gets the sense that she is in dire financial straits.  This is perhaps why some readers of her book have been slow to find sympathy with her journey of reflection and self-discovery.

Especially now, when unemployment in the United States is at record high levels and the retirement investments of many have all but evaporated, hearing that she “found happiness” by basically checking out is a dream for which many would gladly trade their own financially precipitous lives.  Exposing one’s doubts, especially if there has been some privilege, and expressing personal struggles is like making one’s way through a mine field.  People don’t want to hear belly-aching from people with means.

I remember watching an old, early episode of Martha Stewart’s television show when she was suggesting Christmas gifts for the likes of mailmen, corner store owners and other marginal acquaintances.  She had assembled a basket full of themed presents, like a garden-inspired one which included seeds, quality hand tools, kid gloves and perhaps a homemade jar of plum jam.  I calculated the ingredients in my head and came up with a present that made the $75 mark at least — an amount that I would strain to afford for my nearest and dearest friends.  That is when I realized that Martha wasn’t actually one of us, but was from another world.

But the thing that saved Martha for me was her commitment to the best.  When she wanted to speak to someone about the newest, most unusual plants, she sought out the likes of Dan Hinkley or Marco Polo Stufano.  If she wanted beautiful hand-made pots, she found Guy Wolff (and made him a star!)  She featured relatively unknown makers of hand-made rugs, baskets, furniture, canoes, etc. and by elevating their craft to the holy grail of what one should search out, made all these artists stars.   Perfection in the details, whether crafted or made by the natural world, have always been important to this lifestyle maverick.

Similar to Margaret Roach’s journey, that is, leaving a media-centered corporate job in Manhattan and retreating to the country, Browning tries to come to terms with her own value, how she identifies herself in regards to others (mother, ex-wife, lover) and the earth (gardener, environmentalist, lover of natural beauty).  But it is in her blog, and her entries centering around the minutia of the natural world that I am most drawn.

It strikes me again that not only does Browning have a keen eye, but she is able to find just the right words for what she sees.  In her most recent post, she talks about the autumn landscape around her home in the dawn, when she is usually still in bed in this, her new life.   Here is how she describes the broken cobwebs that have long-since been abandoned by summer spiders:

They are in tatters, as though the fey creatures of night had caught the hems of their gowns and the lace of their sleeves on sharp thorns, and torn them in the race to get home before sunrise.

and upon seeing the other-worldly quality of the last vestiges of summer in the meadow, this:

I felt as if I were catching a glimpse through a wormhole to another world in another time–you know, the way you pass a window while you are walking a noisy city street at dusk, and inside chandeliers are lit, the chestnut furniture has a burnished patina, the portraits in oil are deep and dark, champagne sparkles in glasses, women are in gowns, there is a party–but you do not hear a sound and the people inside are oblivious that to your presence. You stand, transfixed, in the noisy 21st century, peering into the 19th.

Les Jardins de Metis: Elsie Reford’s paradise

I remember seeing Alexander Reford for the first time many years ago when he was single-handedly manning a small booth in a garden show.  He was quietly marketing his great grandmother’s garden, called Les Jardins de Metis.

I thought, “Who is this fellow and what is this garden with the funny name?”  It wasn’t until some time later than I began hearing more about the Reford Gardens and how it’s reincarnation was gaining notoriety for hosting an international garden festival where avant-garde designers were creating weird and wonderful conceptual gardens.

Jardins de Metis, International Garden Festival: HAHA! 2011; designed by spmb (Eduardo Aquino et Karen Shanski), Ralph Glor, Matt Baker, Martin Gagnon; photo by Louise Tanguay
Jardins de Metis, International Garden Festival 2011: Oursins, designed by NIPpaysage; photo by Louise Tanguay
Jardins de Metis, International Garden Festival 2011: Rope Ladders, designed by relais Landschaftsarchitekten - Gero Heck, Marianne Mommsen; photo by Martin Bond

Les Jardins de Metis (or Reford Gardens, as it is also known) is on the banks of the Metis River, 220 miles northeast of Quebec City.  It has been the site of an International Garden Festival since the summer of 2000.

The contrast between these provocative displays by international designers and the original garden that slowly but deliberately grew out of the earth on a wild property in the 1920s (and beyond) is not as contradictory as you might think.

Alpine garden, Reford Gardens; photo courtesy Reford Gardens

When in middle age Elsie Reford took possession of her wealthy uncle’s rustic and rambling ‘man cave’ called Estevan Lodge in 1918 (where he hosted salmon-fishing parties miles away from his home in Montreal) she may not have known the extent of the garden she would grow there.  In truth, she spent her first eight years doing everything but gardening on this vast property:  canoeing, riding, hunting and fishing were the daily routine.

But in 1926, a surgery following appendicitis prompted her doctors to suggest that she garden (seen, at the time, as a sedate pastime) as a way of recuperating: Ha!  Little did her doctors know that 54 year old Elsie’s idea of gardening included moving boulders, mountains of earth and taming much of the surrounding wilderness.  Elsie’s gardens were not demure and pedantic.  For the time, they were both traditional and adventurous, and yes, in many ways, provocative.

In words from her garden diary in 1939, Reford writes:

An important days work, trying to devise something better along the brook than the lone line of petunias which is not in keeping with the nature and character of the high bank. Had the rocks placed much more irregularly and then tried planting as a great innovation a shrub namely an Acer palmatum “Atropurpureum”and some spireas and depta from reserve. It is an experiment and may succeed.

Blue poppy walk, Reford Gardens; photo by Louise Tanguay
Reford Gardens; photo by Michel Laverdiere

Elsie Reford had a privileged childhood and married into wealth, but she was not supercilious.  She had the means to hire men from the surrounding communities, where unemployment was high, and did so to help her create this garden.  The soil in this location was poor and so she asked neighbouring farmers to sell her peat and sand.  Combining these with compost, the novice gardeners amended the inhospitable soil that would shortly become home to a varied selection of plants.  She taught the men she employed how to make planting beds, arrange plantings, transplant trees, make compost and care for hundreds of plant species.

Describing the preparation of the soil for a gentian planting, she wrote:

At Estevan the natural soil which is chiefly of a forbidding sort of clay, was excavated to a depth of two feet and the first four inches filled in with beach stones about the size of an egg; after that six inches of gravelly grit and the remaining fourteen inches were given a mixture of two parts finely cut leaves, one part and one part of a gritty sand. Into this the Gentians were planted and the whole strewn over with fine gravel.

Gentian, Jardins de Metis; photo by Louise Tanguay

At times thwarted by crippling allergies, not to mention advancing age, Elsie Reford nevertheless became an experienced plantswoman.  She sourced plants that were unusual in Canada at the time (azaleas, gentians, primroses and Himalayan blue poppies, for example) and created areas where they thrived.  She even wrote articles for erudite horticultural journals like that of the Royal Horticultural Society and the North American Lily Society.

Elsie wrote in her garden diary on July 5th, 1946:

Today the Gardens were visited by 4 American horticulturalists, one of them a botanist and all were unreservedly enthusiastic about everything they saw – declaring that taken as a whole they would call it the most beautiful garden they had ever seen. Very high praise from people who were really knowledgeable and who have seen many gardens. It was quite obvious what enjoyment and interest they obtained from the visit.

Before Elsie acquired the property from her uncle, the lodge’s only flowering ornamentation was comprised of simple planters on the wraparound verandah.  Yet, as she entered her final years three decades later, twenty acres of the property had been manipulated into gardens.

Jardins de Metis: central path through perennial borders; photo by Louise Tanguay

In 1961, she wrote that:

The government has announced that the garden is to be kept as formerly and the house to serve in time as a museum. The bluff to be used as a camping ground and the Page triangle piece of ground as a picnic park. I think if these plans are adhered to that if it was not held for the family as I intended it should be, it all seems better than I had believed would be possible.”

This gardening force withdrew from her country paradise in 1959 and died at her urban home in Montreal at the impressive age of 96.

Porch at Estevan Lodge, Reford Gardens; photo by Robert Baronet

However, in 1994, the Government of Quebec was poised to close the garden.  Through a series of negotiations and community rallying, the garden was purchased by Les Amies des Jardins de Metis in 1995.  You can read about its reclamation by the Reford family and the community here.

Reford Gardens; photo by Louise Tanguay

Elsie Reford understood and marvelled at the magic involved in making a garden.  Twenty-two years into her garden-making at Jardins de Metis, she wrote:

Gardens give each day and more of a thrill and a certain feeling of amazement that they are what they are and as though they are all the work of something or someone quite apart from anything I have planned or done for I cannot just understand how I have made them what they are.”

Reford Gardens; photo by Louise Tanguay
Reford Gardens; photo by Louise Tanguay
Reford Gardens; photo by Louise Tanguay

Do plan a visit to this historic and exuberant garden in our own backyard.  It is worth participating in its re-birth.

Reford Gardens; photo by Louise Tanguay

The summer of 2012 will be a double anniversary for the
Gardens – the 50th anniversary of the opening of the gardens
to the public and the 125th anniversary of the construction of
Estevan Lodge. Preparations are underway for a series of
celebratory events for 2012, a writing competition for local
youth, a new exhibition in Estevan Lodge, reunions for former
staff of the gardens, the creation of one or more extra-mural
gardens in the region, the unveiling of a new work of art, the
opening of a museum of garden tools and commemorative
activities in June, July and August

The archived photos reproduced within this post, as well as the quotes from Elsie Reford herself, have been borrowed from this website, lovingly created by Alexander Reford.  Thank you Alexander for allowing me to use these photos here.

The autumn landscape of the Larch

Did you know that some trees are considered both evergreen and deciduous?  This came as surprising news to me when I was studying horticulture.  In fact, I believe it was a question on a weekly quiz and I thought it was one of those ‘trick’ questions.

Those trees that you see turning blazing gold in our autumn chill are one of a few evergreens whose needles shift colour with the changing seasons and then suddenly drop to the ground. 

I have heard stories of people purchasing this tree from a nursery and when the needles turned gold and fell to the ground, they believed it to be dead, so dug it up and returned it.  The nursery, of course, told them to take it back and replant it before it was really dead!

These are larch trees, known botanically as Larix, and those found in our climate are either the Tamarack larch (Larix laricina) or the imported European larch (Larix decidua).  They are in the same family as pine trees (Pinaceae) and exhibit the same whorled needle arrangement.  But of course pines are fully evergreen, keeping their green needles all year round.

They remind me of the clusters of flowers on witchhazel trees (Hamamalis), which by contrast, are languourous and flimsy and slowly  shrivel but do not fall.

The larch is one of three trees that are deciduous conifers; the others are dawn redwood (Metasequoia) and baldcypress (Taxodium distichum).   They share the characteristic of being regenerative; that is, if you chop any of these trees down to the ground, they will sprout new leaders!

I love the yellows evident in the fields with grasses putting on their final show for the year and the exclamation points that are the seedheads of the yellow daisies of the false sunflower (Heliopsis).

Not just yellows but soft pinks, and browns and greens and dusty silver.  There is such subtlety in these late fall moments.

And when the cold wind begins to arrive from the north, the rustling and papery remnants of summer so evident in these grasses is made that much more bittersweet by the stark black timelessness of these tree silhouettes.

Soon the larches will be bare as well.