Let's face it, Canada is probably not the first place you think of if you're interested in garden touring. Isn't it too far north for anything to grow well and survive the harsh winters? In fact, the cold climate and northern latitudes bring out the best in a surprising range of plants, and many marvelous public and private gardens across the country are open to the public.
Last June, I had the opportunity to tour some gardens in Quebec province, just north of New England. Of the many gardens I saw, three stand out: a very English one on the lower St. Lawrence River, created in the traditional way by the niece of a railroad baron; a teaching garden at Laval University, in Quebec City; and a Depression-era make-work project in Montreal that has evolved into a magnificent showcase and one of the world's largest botanical gardens. All are aesthetically pleasing but also full of ideas and inspiration.
Jardins de Metis
This garden, which the Michelin guide to Canada calls "among the most beautiful in the world," sits on a peninsula on the south shore of the St. Lawrence about 220 miles northeast of Quebec City. It was created after World War I by Elsie Reford, a Montreal society woman who migrated north each summer to escape city heat and enjoy the fresh air -- hence the garden's former name, Reford Gardens. Her great-grandson is the garden's general manager, which may explain why much of the magic of the place survives.
The site, surrounded by water on three sides, is the garden's most impressive feature. This allows for a cool growing season, and a dense belt of black spruce shelters the garden from the prevailing northwest winds. Much of the garden nestles along the sloping banks of Page Brook, with a path that meanders from one shore to the other on rustic bridges.
The 42-acre garden still feels very much like a private estate. Its greatest assets are Elsie Reford's artful plantings, fortunately preserved over the years. Traditional flower beds, as well as numerous large areas where plants have been naturalized, merge imperceptibly into the surrounding native ferns and forest. The plantings fit so perfectly into their environment that, if you did not know otherwise, you would think most of the plants were native. This is one secret of the garden's great charm.
Another is its cool maritime microclimate. The long summer days keep perennials in bloom for weeks on end and provide the required conditions for some rarities that cannot survive hot, stifling summers. The garden is justifiably proud of its blue Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia), which grow to perfection in the dappled shade of old crabapple trees. In most cases, gardeners who can grow Himalayan poppies are very proud to show you one or two cosseted specimens. Here, they spring out by the dozens, some in flower beds but others in unexpected corners, behaving very much like the more common poppies that self-seed profusely in our warmer gardens. Other Meconopsis species grown by Elsie Reford are being reintroduced, including M. grandis.
The garden ends on a large terrace where the spruce belt opens just enough to frame a magnificent view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The rambling old summer home built here now contains a craft shop, and a restaurant in the old dining room. The dining room faces a lawn where we had a leisurely tea, admiring drifts of lupine, a plant very much of Elsie Reford's era, that looked about 1/2 mile wide and many feet deep.
Jardins de Metis: 200 Route 132, Grand-Metis G0J 1Z0; (418) 775-2221. Ticket booth is open 8:30am to 5pm daily in June and from September 1 through October 15; to 6:30pm in July and August. Gates close at 8pm. Admission: $8 adults, $7 seniors, $6 students, $3 ages 5 through 13, $20 per family. Admission to the International Garden Festival costs an extra $4; check ahead for timing.
Roger Van den Hende Garden
This 15-acre teaching garden is in Sainte-Foy, just west of Quebec City. Its name may make you think of an old Dutch master, and it does refer to a master -- but a master gardener who created a garden and an arboretum on the grounds of Laval University.
At first, I thought the garden cold and unappealing. Though you go through an attractive arbor and welcoming entrance, these take you into a vast open area where more than a thousand plots are aligned in straight rows, each plant segregated from its neighbor and carefully lined up and identified by a large label. This regimented appearance makes the garden look rather austere and forbidding.
Looking at the plants more closely and reading the labels, you try to make sense of this gathering of 2,000 kinds of plants that seem to have nothing in common. It took me some time to realize that the arrangement is simply a botanical one. Then, curiosity takes over and you go from bed to bed, surprised to learn that bugbane (Cimicifuga) is in fact a buttercup, that forget-me-nots (Myosotis) and Brunnera are actually borages. You meet all these old friends you never associated with each other, and it is as if they all had been gathered in one place with their relatives, and you're finding out you actually know many of their cousins.
Besides being a great deal of fun, the garden is an eye-opener on what can be grown in a place that shares the same latitude as northern Minnesota. One thing you definitely do not expect to see in a cold-winter garden are 15-foot-tall rhododendrons (the garden has 40 species). You know you will find some old-fashioned roses (after all these are tough old plants), but among the 200-plus varieties the garden grows are also a surprising number of modern ones.
The arboretum, a nice shady walk where you can get away from the busy family reunion next door, also holds quite a few surprises including several magnolias. It leads to an attractive water garden where the floral emblem of the place (the native Iris versicolor) grows.
The garden's most picturesque feature is a spacious pergola that serves as a backdrop to the lined-up plots and redirects the traffic to other sections of the garden. It sits slightly higher than the rest of the garden and is an ideal place to sit in the shade and admire the view. Just behind it is a shade garden including tall ferns and impressive drifts of Turk's cap lilies (Lilium martagon).
Roger Van den Hende Garden:, Laval University Horticultural Research Center, 2480 Blvd. Hochelaga, Sainte-Foy G1K 7P4; (418) 656-3410. Open 8am to 9pm May 1 through October 30; free.
Montreal Botanical Garden
This 185-acre garden in the heart of the city has a great deal to offer: 30 outdoor gardens, 10 exhibition greenhouses, a 96-acre arboretum, and superb Japanese and Chinese gardens with outstanding collections of bonsai and penjing (the Chinese equivalent of bonsai).
I found the educational gardens particularly interesting. These are some of the oldest ones at the garden. For instance, the aquatic garden has numerous raised pools where you can see, just a few inches from your nose, a large variety of native and exotic aquatic plants. The most intriguing collection is the poisonous plant garden. Being surrounded by plants you know you cannot even touch makes you feel you are in an alien, science fiction world. Knowing they are poisonous attracts you but at the same time forces you to keep your distance. Teenage boys seemed particularly intrigued by this garden.
Nearby is a garden of economic plants, ones humans use extensively for other than aesthetic reasons. You can see such things as flax and tobacco as well as a very interesting collection of vegetables. The garden seems to have been conceived to acquaint people with the plants that supply the vegetables they have been eating all their lives.
But sophisticated gardeners have not been forgotten either, and there are also lots of unusual vegetables. I was fascinated with an improved, culinary variety of purslane! Having spent many a late-summer evening pulling out purslane by the bucketful in my own vegetable garden, I was shocked to see it very large, very plump, and very juicy, staring at me defiantly from its well-cultivated row. After my initial shock, I felt somewhat vindicated to see that even with all the staff available it was a problem to keep it from sprouting in the neighboring rows.
The botanical garden has numerous allotments for city children to use. My best memory of the garden is of a group of boys and girls about age 10 walking out of the garden with plastic bags of leaf lettuce and other veggies they were obviously proud of having grown themselves, and looking forward to showing them to their parents.
Montreal Botanical Garden: 4101 Sherbrooke St. E, Montreal H1X 2B2; (514) 872-1400. Open 9am to 7pm daily mid-June to late October, 9am to 5pm the rest of the year. Summer admission: $9.50 adults, $7 students and seniors, $4.75 ages 6 through 17; lower rates the rest of the year.
Alain Charest, an avid home gardener, lives in Kitchener, Ontario. His most recent article is "Trumpet Vine".
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association and Mike MacCaskey (bottom)