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.