Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Gardens of Elsie Reford

Path to the lookout
A path through the mountain pines (Pinus mugo) to the lookout.
It isn't just a light rain shower that greets us at the Reford Gardens – it's a torrential summer storm. After driving many hours to get to this lonely stretch of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, suddenly there is a risk that we might not be able to tour Elsie Reford's northern gardens.

So, we linger indoors with other tourists. Disappointed, we watch the lingering dark storm clouds. It is good fortune when a tall, middle-aged man in a bright-orange rain jacket walks over to greet us. Alexander Reford, director of the Reford Gardens since 1995 and the great-grandson of Elsie Reford, introduces himself. While we wait for the rain to stop, he tells us about his great-grandmother and her garden legacy.

Elsie Reford's Paradise
The Long Walk in full bloom
The Long Walk in full bloom
The garden entitled The Long Walk in full bloom.
Alexander Reford describes a time so different from today. Nowadays, cars and buses jam the front parking lot to bring visitors – about 100,000 annually from around the world – to the gardens. A quiet, private woman, Elsie Reford would likely have been aghast at the crowds but nevertheless delighted that her gardens are so popular.

In Elsie's privileged upper-class world, only invited friends and family had the opportunity to enjoy these beautiful gardens she started in the summer of 1926. They were intended solely for her personal enjoyment. When the Quebec government acquired the gardens in 1961, they opened them to the public the following year.
Old millstoneOld millstone
An old millstone in the woods at the Reford Gardens.
In 1995, the gardens were privatized, owned by Les Amis des Jardins de Métis, a non-profit organization and registered charity. With the help of horticulturalists, gardeners and friends of the gardens, they have been restored to their original grandeur. Les Jardins de Métis remains the French name.

Alexander Reford, also a part-time historian, has written extensively about his great- grandmother and the flowers found in her gardens in the beautifully photographed books
The Reford Gardens: Elsie's Paradise (2004) and Treasures of the Reford Gardens: Elsie's Floral Legacy (2006).

The Garden of Bridges
When the rain finally ends, the gardens are open for viewing. There is nothing more beautiful than a garden fresh after a summer's rain. We wander through beds that follow the meandering path of Page's Brook, crossing a series of five cedar bridges. It is a natural garden, free-flowing like the brook, lacking the formality of English gardens with their carefully crafted garden rooms created by her contemporaries.

The Reford garden design, with its character, charm and originality, was Elsie's creation. She deliberately opted not to seek professional help, even though she was an amateur with no horticultural expertise.
Plant life surrounding the brookPlant life surrounding the brook
The freely growing lush plant life surrounding the brook. 
These gardens are remarkable for many reasons. Elsie faced many challenges. She did not begin the project until later in life, at age 54. After surgery for an attack of appendicitis , she was ordered by her physician to refrain from her usual physical activities of fishing, canoeing, riding and hunting. So she set her sights on gardening instead, hardly a rest. She was hands-on, working in the gardens and training local farmers and fishermen to make them expert gardeners, too.

Her enthusiasm had no bounds. Married with two grown sons, she spent the better part of the next decade creating more than 20 acres of garden beds from a fishing camp inherited from her well-to-do uncle. As she was owner of the property, the household and the gardening staff reported to her, not her husband, contrary to the tradition of the day.

The soil quality in these spruce forests was poor – mostly thick, dark clay. The land was cleared and good soil and sand from nearby fields were transported to the new gardens. She hired men to dig three-foot trenches that were filled with manure, peat moss, sand and bone meal.

As she acquired knowledge and expertise with plants, she also discovered those that grew surprisingly well in this harsh northern climate. Several microsystems in the region protected plants that otherwise would not grow in such extreme conditions, and deep snow protected them during the long, cold winters.

Her brook gardens overflow with ferns, lilies, astilbe, bloodroot and other plants. It is a joy to walk through this shady woodland, feeling the damp earth beneath my feet.

In Search of the Himalayan Blue Poppy
Himalayan blue poppies
Himalayan blue poppies delight visitors to the garden.
Like other gardeners who visit Reford Gardens, I went in search of the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia). With its bright blue hue, it is easy to spot. Those that grow beside the brook are the progeny of plants Elsie grew from seed in the 1930s. Fortunately, there are hundreds in bloom in July during this walk. They are as blue as the now-clear sky, with raindrops bending their blooms in the breeze.

These poppies are not easy to grow, but remain coveted by gardeners who delight in the big blue flowers. They are native to Tibet, discovered by plant explorers who brought back seed to excited gardeners in the British Isles willing to pay high prices for it. Elsie Reford was among the first North American gardeners to grow blue poppies. She obtained her seed from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland. She relied mainly on her small library of books for her research, and purchased from seed catalogues and other sources.

Elsie Reford's Flower Favorites
Beautiful roses are found throughout the Reford Gardens.
This is first and foremost a flower garden, with a limited tree collection. While the poppies are famous, her collection also includes peonies, primroses, ferns, azaleas, bloodroot, roses and other plants. There are more than 3,000 species, both native and exotic. Some are on display just past the azaleas and up a short staircase to The Long Walk, with two 90-metre flowerbeds. She favored soft colors with many pinks and blues.

Her favorite plants were her lilies, long before the days of red lily beetles – a pest that has proven so destructive. In her day, lilies were relatively unknown in this part of Quebec. Even though there are many new varieties now available, Alexander Reford and his crew of 55 staff – including five gardeners – work to preserve the original plant varieties grown in the gardens. Even their "lamb mowers", a flock of sheep that belongs to a local farmer, are ecologically friendly, mowing the lawns without lawnmowers.

Her Legacy Lives On
Elsie Reford in her garden
Elsie Reford in her garden (photo courtesy of the staff at the Reford Gardens)
It would have been such a pleasure to meet Elsie Reford, a remarkable gardener. Alexander Reford has only vague memories of his great-grandmother when he was a small boy.

She was an avid collector and a gardener with an adventurous spirit for trying new plants. She had a curiosity for plants, keeping detailed records that have proven helpful to restore the gardens to their former glory.

Her husband, Robert Wilson Reford, is credited with being a prolific amateur photographer. His photos, developed in his own darkroom, have also helped in the re-creation of the garden.

Elsie Reford left her gardens in Grand-Métis for the last time in October 1958 and died a few years later at the age of 96. These once-private gardens are now a leading tourist attraction during the summer in eastern Canada.

Text and photos by Julianne Labreche
Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and gardening enthusiast who volunteers with Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton.