Category Archives: famous gardens


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.


Dreaming of containers….

Is it too early to be talking about container planting?  Is it ever?

I don’t think so.

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These glorious containers are just about the first thing you see when you venture into the wonderland that is Chanticleer Garden near Philadelphia.  The tricks here include: large containers with drainage holes, clustering or grouping those containers, choosing similar or complementary colours and shapes with your containers, and using  bold plants.  Not simply annuals, but tropicals for scale and oomph, as well as interesting shapes, colours and textures.  If you have a spot where your planters will get morning sun and afternoon shade (or filtered light), your options are practically endless.


What is striking about this planting is the juxtaposition of context (i.e. modern galvanized trough planters, pea stone and monochrome background) and raucous display — a riot of bright colour (angel wing begonia), loose grasses (purple fountain grass) and dripping chartreuse edgers (golden creeping jenny).

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In contrast, here is a simple but no less striking container planting using foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’) in a classic glazed pot.  What I love is the movement in this fern, which aptly looks like sea anemones swaying in the ocean.   I found it in the courtyard of the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

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…and here is a similar tropical container planting on steroids!  At Longwood Gardens, everything is big.  Asparagus fern plants billow out from a classic terracotta pot while the striking leaves of elephant ears (or giant alocasia/taro  known botanically as Macrorrhiza maki) erupt from the centre.  This kind of knock your socks off container planting needs lots of water and nutrients to keep it looking lush and green.

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More BIG displays at Longwood, which is not surprising since it reflects the wealth and ceremony of the DuPont name.  This purple and silvery-blue display uses an antique urn to showcase the deadly century plant (Agave americana) underplanted with everblooming fan flower (Scaevola aemula).

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This squat agave, with no less deadly spines, is called Palmer’s century plant (Agave palmeri) and is actually the largest agave found growing in the United States.


Big, bold displays using tropicals and annuals are what’s needed at a home’s entrance.  Although this home is facing south, the front door is located on a covered porch so the planters flanking it must be shade tolerant.  I used palms for height, decorative leafy begonias for oomph, angel wing begonia for bright colour and some simple english ivy for more trailing effect.  The display is so lush you don’t need an attractive container when all is said and done!

002Another entrance also called for a pair of planters, but this time with a similar colour palette and different combinations of plants.


Planters that grace public areas on frequented sidewalks have to present a unique face to the world.  They have to be lush from the get-go, with plants that intermingle with each other and knit together so yanking any one out is next to impossible.  Take that, vandals!

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So take a lesson from these planters for this coming spring: plant lush, plant full and plant with a sensitive eye to colour and texture.  You can’t lose!


The romantic garden of Page Dickey or Garden Conservancy Tour: Part IV

What I believed to perhaps be the highlight of our garden touring was the North Salem, NY, home and life-work of Page Dickey.  She is known for her garden writing, primarily two books that chronicled her life alongside her garden here at Duck Hill (Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Country Garden, 1991; and then Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden, twenty years later in 2011).


The garden is clearly mature.  A product of years and years of love, both volumptuous and restrained, overgrown and controlled.  Dickey has called this garden home for the last 30 plus years.


One of the first things I thought upon entering this garden was, “Gosh, her husband must really like to prune.”  And I see in this personal article by Anne Raver in the NY Times from 2010 that her new millenium husband, Bosco Schell, does indeed enjoy clipping.

Thankfully so.  Because these boxwood balls (what is it about men and their boxwood balls?) are barely navigable, but who wants to nix such mature specimens?  Not Page Dickey who says in her most recent book, “I don’t have the energy to start again.”

The crabapple trees that form a grid in the courtyard garden next to the house are really what she is referring to when she says this.  If there was any thought to taking them down and starting again, it is clearly not an option.  For they are floriferous in the spring and then demonstrate such linear architecture in the winter months that taking them down would be nothing less than criminal.  Embraced by neatly clipped yew hedges, these trees need constant attention so the paths can be navigated without getting a branch in your face.



But there are such beautiful moments here; moments where the visitor can breathe a bit easier and smell the fragrance on this hillside.


I have always gardened in confined spaces.  Urban gardens, bounded by garages, fences, walls.  My hands ache and my back weakens when I imagine tending a garden that is even a little bit bigger than mine in the city.


There is a lot to do here.  And Page Dickey is keenly aware of what happens when your garden grows beyond your capabilities.  Replacing perennials with shrubs and ground covers in order to help curb the maintenance is an important focus.


And this is exactly what she’s done in parts of the property.  The shady parts.  The wild parts.  The parts that become a focus, and a relief, with age…


All made more spectacular because of the contrast with the civility closer to the clapboard house: the highly organized and pristine vegetable garden that was a naive inspiration to me…


But this garden is not simply a set of views, images or lessons.  It is someone’s home.  Someone’s passion with plants, moments in time and space, shared with family and animals.



I really appreciated the glimpse.  And the imagining without the work.  Thank you to all those gardeners who clip, rake, sweep, snip, stake, and primp so that when we come and visit, it all looks so easy.



Garden Conservancy Tour 2014 – Part II

 It was the greenhouse, really, that made me stop breathing for a moment and stand there with my mouth open.  The English ivy growing up the walls, the aged paned windows, the vintage cupboard, and the stained and curling photographs.  Even one showing Mrs. Greenthumbs, Casandra Danz, in one of her comic poses…


I don’t know if you share my opinion on this, but I could live here quite happily…


… and know that I had found my place in paradise … is that too corny?


But wait, there’s more.

This is the garden belonging to Peter Bevacqua and Stephen King, no, another Stephen King, in Claverack, NY.  I don’t know who these two are besides very committed, enthusiastic and experienced gardeners — with a bit of disposable income in their retirement years.  The pair moved here in 1988 from the Upper West Side, aka Manhattan, and have been showing their garden to the public as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days since at least 2004.  Although not a competition, being chosen to participate in the Open Days is, Bevacqua says, “…like winning an Oscar or something.”


This two-acre garden (they purchased the property next door in 2000) feels like an impeccably maintained estate.  Languorous trees over verdant lawns, crisp edges and tightly clipped hedges make touring this garden immensely satisfying, since absolutely nothing is amiss and everything looks lush and well cared for.


Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave it here since for the last week or more my computer is refusing to download anymore photos :c(    Does it not want me to share my experience of this lovely garden with you?  Or is it just being a jerk.  I would guess the latter *sigh*

Garden Conservancy Tour 2014 – Part I

I’m just back from a trip to upstate (middle?) New York for a visit to six spectacular gardens.  I thought I would chronicle them here in six parts.  These were private gardens that were open to visitors as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program.  Three were close to Hudson, NY, and the others were in North Salem, NY.


Margaret Roach’s garden in Copake Falls is one I’ve written about before (see here) when we visited about five years ago and it was nice to see it again.  Like all of us, Margaret is trying to balance plant passion and taking care of a large garden with aging hands, backs and knees.  You wouldn’t know it though because her beds are still beautifully edged and dressed, the veggie garden full and orderly and her pots carefully placed and ready for the season.




It is so rewarding to be able to catch a glimpse into the world of other gardeners.  Thank you Margaret for opening up your private space to hoards of admirers and their heavy, sometimes clumsy feet.


No mulch, no soil: tapestry plantings

I have become increasingly drawn to tapestry plantings.  You know, the ones that rely on a carpet of green or combinations of colours to cover empty ground.


This planting uses a combination of hot-coloured marigolds and mini zinnias to make a vibrant strip garden between two entrance walkways.  I think the effect is improved with the use of several boulders which makes the design seem more random, even natural, and less regimented.


In contrast, this planting combines ground cover sedums, two varieties of prostrate juniper, along with a volunteer — some Virginia creeper at the front right.

Whether annuals or perennials are chosen, this kind of carpet planting provides a relatively low-maintenance solution to smaller spaces.  It ensures the soil is kept shaded, therefore moist, and weeds are kept at bay.


Combining two plants that wouldn’t normally be given the same conditions makes for an unusual display.  Here, Hosta albo marginata (a shade lover) is paired with Sedum spectabile (a sun lover) creating a striking contrast between the hosta’s relaxed cream-edged leaves with the erect broccoli-like inflorescence of the sedum.

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Hostas are more commonly paired with other shade lovers like Corydalis and Thalictrum in my own shady garden.  But I have snuck in a Thuja occidentalis ‘Sunkist’ at the rear.


This garden is intensively planted with no soil (or mulch) visible anywhere.  Hostas, hydrangea, stephanandra and daylilies all play together making a lush and interesting display.

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The trick to intermingling plants is contrasting form and texture, not simply colour.  Here in an interior planting at Longwood Garden, Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’ is mixed with a finely textured artemisia.  The effect is heightened with the addition of asparagus fern and the erect blades of cordyline cutting through the fluff.  A punch of colour comes from the croton.  Of course this combination uses a mix of tender plants, but nevertheless the lesson is germaine to other plants as well.

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Sometimes the best effect is the simplest.

This is a quintessential vignette from Chanticleer, near Philadelphia.

Les Quatres Vents, Part I

At Francis Cabot’s tribute at the New York Botanical Garden on April 30, 2012 after his death late in 2011, members of the Garden Conservancy, Wave Hill and the NYBG gathered to honour his legacy.


Marco Polo Stufano (ex-Director of the garden known as Wave Hill), Daniel Hinkley (creator of Heronswood Nursery and avid plant hunter) and others related how Cabot was a passionate plantsman and advocate for gardens.  He was the force behind the creation of the Garden Conservancy after he and his wife visited Ruth Bancroft’s ahead-of-its-time arid garden in California and was told there was no plan for its future after her death.


Cabot put his considerable wealth, power and personal charisma behind creating this organization and as a result, the Ruth Bancroft garden was it’s first preservation project.

Cabot was born in the summer of 1925 into a wealthy New York family with Boston roots, where his name was taken from his father’s, Francis Higginson Cabot Sr..  The expectation was, no doubt, that he would follow in those financial footsteps and work in the same engineering and investment banking company, Stone & Webster, in which his father was vice-president.

And his path did in fact take that route.  Toward the end of World War II and before college, the younger Cabot served in the Army and then attended Harvard University where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1949.

He took a job at his father’s company and then became a partner in an investment and venture capital firm (Train, Cabot & Associates) in 1959.

“I was a good promoter,” Mr. Cabot told The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., in 2003. “But I was a good promoter of ventures that didn’t always work out. So I threw myself into gardening.”

His family had several residences but one country property in La Malbaie, Quebec, was perhaps the most wild and evocative to Frank.  The smell of the soil, the breeze from the river, the squishy humousy earth beneath his feet, the serendipitous spruce seedling — all of these things beckoned him to gardening.

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By the time he retired from the banking business in 1976, he had already served as chairman of the New York Botanical Garden for three years.  The year prior, he and his wife moved to the Cabot family property at La Malbaie on a full-time basis and he spent much of his time developing this garden that he called Les Quatres Vents (the four winds).  He had many childhood memories that spoke of the magic of nature and over time, he tried to translate this magic into garden experiences.

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For the next several decades, Frank Cabot pruned and planted, clipped and sheared, employed and directed, translated and re-envisioned this wild space into a series of allusions.  Cabot freely admits in his book describing the creation of this garden, The Greater Perfection, that he plagiarized from great gardens into this Zone 4 acreage: indeed, you will find a white garden, a rose garden (underplanted with Dianthus, as per Russell Page’s instruction), a number of allees (with tightly clipped cedar), water features, shady glades, a Japanese garden (complete with tea house), an English perennial border, a knot garden, etc. — all of these reinforcing the garden fan in him.

More than a private Disneyworld of world gardens, this property shows a greater perfection that can only be achieved through skill, dedication, the ability to learn and listen, and the means by which it could be carried to completion.  We all know that it is rare for all of these characteristics to meet in a garden.

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There are details around the house that speak to intimate moments between plant and home owner:

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And there are bigger moments, that suggest much effort and skill, with the help of many hands:

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These cultivated allees with orchestrated views are reminiscent of European and English gardens, like Hidcote and other gardens with hedges and topiaries.

Cabot is known to have had a sense of humour.  Hidden amongst the notes to his book, A Greater Perfection,  he makes the following admission:

I made the mistake of asking a psychiatrist friend why I should be so drawn to large-leaved plants.  He replied on his best clinical notepaper that I must consider myself to be so well endowed that I couldn’t resist searching for the ultimate fig-leaf.

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He was also a lover of sculpture that related both to the garden and to the garden visitor…





There are moments of serenity, seemingly natural, with only the lightest hand of land-owner or gardener…

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More to come in Part II … especially more on plants and the creation of several of the garden spaces.