Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Inspiration for Shade Plantings from Reford Gardens


When Elsie Reford set out to create a garden at her summer home north of Montreal, she began in a wooded area. A meandering stream gave her a picturesque starting point and the conifer forest that surrounded it gave her the perfect backdrop. 

Though this area was not to become the most flamboyant of the gardens she would undertake (see Our Visit to Les Jardin de Métis, Part 1), it is perhaps the garden that blends most comfortably in the natural landscape that surrounds it.

Elsie Reford 

What is a garden but plants beautifully assembled and displayed? It's the setting that makes Les Jardin des Métis unique. 

Elsie had a profound love for the outdoors and the Quebec landscape.  To her home province, she brought a treasure trove of botanical curiosities; lilies, primulas, gentians and blue poppies from the Himalaya mountains. Most of them were a challenge to grow in a northern setting, but that did not discourage her. As most gardeners do, she learned by trial and error.




Over the years, I have visited many shade gardens. The most remarkable amongst them are the gardens that artfully allow texture, contrast and subtle shifts in color to work their magic. 

There is less visual noise in a good shade garden. Flowers never really assume a lead role. Instead, they are simply members of the supporting cast. The principal color is usually green and it is amazing how restful the predominance of that one single hue can be.


Two hostas–both are "green" but the shade of green couldn't be more different. The blue-green hosta has large deeply veined foliage, while the chartreuse hosta has smaller, brighter leaves. Alone they're just two rather ordinary hosta plants. It's when you contrast one with the other that you create something interesting.

If I can use a musical analogy, in the photograph above we see two distinct notes played together in harmony. Now, let's step back and see the full orchestral score.


As we look out beyond that initial pair, we see there is a myriad of different greens each adding its unique voice to the overall "sound". The interplay of leaf shapes and sizes is also lovely. 

And I would be remiss if I did not point out the role that the craggy, moss-covered stones play. The plantings seem lush and verdant in comparison with the rocks.


When you have a plant like this Maidenhair Fern, you can make the fine lime-green foliage seem even more delicate when you place it beside the big, bold leaves of a blue-green hosta.

Most of the hostas at Les Jardin des Métis were not identified, but I have one that is similar in my own garden that I can recommend:
Hosta 'Snake Eyes' has medium green leaves with a light green centre framed with a creamy-white edge. The flowers are lavender. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 55-60 cm (21-23 inches), Spread: 110-120 cm (43-47 inches). USDA zones: 2-9.



Northern Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum pedatum is a deciduous fern with curved reddish-brown to black stems and arching compound fan-shaped blades. It prefers moist, rich soil, but it adapts to average garden conditions. Best in bright shade. Height: 30-75 cm (12-30 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12- 30 inches). USDA Zone: 3-8.
Interesting tidbit: Early Quebec settlers harvested Maidenhair ferns to make a syrup that was exported back to Europe where it was used as a coagulant to arrest hemorrhaging.



This big swath of a single hosta is a great reminder that a garden bed doesn't always need a mix of different perennials to look great. Allowing a single plant to spread out and fill a large area can be very striking.

When plants are given the freedom to seed themselves, the gardener's hand is less evident.

If you read my last blog post on Jardin de Métis/Reford Gardens, you may remember "The Long Walk" has a traditional stepped planting where perennials are arranged from shortest along the front of the flowerbed to tallest at the back of the border. 

The plantings in this woodland alcove are much less formal.  As you can see in the photo above, two tall ferns jut up from the outer edge of the centre garden bed. In behind them are much shorter plants (unacceptable in a traditional stepped scheme). This random placement feels less contrived and more in keeping with the way plants self-seed naturally. Perhaps that is why this part of Jardin des Métis seemed so much more at home in its forest setting.



I absolutely love the delicate wisps of the white Goat's Beard and the soft green texture of the ferns. If fairies were real, this would certainly a setting in which to find them!

Goat's Beard in three different sizes:

Goat's Beard, Aruncus dioicus is the largest of the three and has feathery white plumes mid-summer. The plant has green ferny foliage which is quite attractive in its own right.  Part-shade or shade and average to moist soil.  Height: 120-180 cm ( 47-70 inches), Spread: 90-150 cm (35-59 inches.) USDA Zones: 2-9.

Goat's Beard, Aruncus 'Misty Lace' is more suited to a smaller garden and is the medium-sized plantHeight: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Dwarf Goat's Beard, Aruncus aethusifolius forms a neat mound of ferny foliage with reddish stems. It has short spikes of white flowers in early mid-summer. Part-shade or shade and average to moist soil. Height: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.



At the time Elsie created her woodland gardens, ferns were not commonly used in a home setting. Ferns had experienced a bit of a craze in Victorian England, where displays of exotic specimens collected from around the world were kept in glass conservatories. This fashion for ferns never translated to widespread use in outdoor spaces. 

Ferns remained a botanical curiosity, but no one seems to have taken interest in their cultivation.  To her credit, Elsie saw a potential use for the ferns growing in forests and along the stream banks of Estevan Lodge. She collected specimens that grew in and around the property and incorporated them into her plantings.



Lady Fern, Athyrium filix-femina 'Erika Silver'* is a delicate fern with pale silvery-green foliage and a non-spreading, mounding habit. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 90 cm (35 inches), Spread: 80 cm (30 inches). USDA Zones: 4-9.
*I had difficulty finding sources for this fern anywhere other than one Quebec nursery. You might have more luck finding a similar-looking plant Athyrium 'Ghost'.

Most of the ferns in Les Jardin de Métis are native to the woods along the Lower St. Lawrence Valley. This part Of Quebec has around thirty species, the most common being Maidenhair ferns (Adiantum), Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia) and Wood ferns (Dryopteris).

Most ferns like moist soil that is rich in organic matter. If your garden is dry (like mine) you may struggle to grow those lovely Maidenhair ferns (Adiantum). I find Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia) fair a bit better in drought conditions, as do Japanese Ferns and Lady Ferns (Athyrium). 

Ferns do have one drawback–they tend to be at their best in the spring and early summer. By August, they can look a bit bedraggled. In a place like Jardin de Métis, that is open to the public throughout the summer season, browning ferns can pose a bit of a challenge for the staff. Visitors expect the gardens to always look their best. As a result, fading ferns are trimmed back. You can do this in your own garden, but do remember your ferns will not benefit from the decaying foliage. Some organic matter should be added to keep the soil dark and rich. 


As I said, most of the hostas were not identified, but I did try to capture some of the plants for which I could find tags.


Hosta 'Golden Tiara' is a popular hosta that has medium green leaves with irregular creamy-yellow margins. 'Golden Tiara' is a smaller sized hosta that has better tolerance for dry conditions. It prefers rich, well-drained soil. Lavender flowers. Part-shade to full shade. Height: 30-60 cm (12-24 inches), Spread: 60-90 cm (24-36 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.


Hosta 'Patrica' has heart-shaped leaves that are blue-green with a chartreuse margin. Lavender flowers. Height: 30-60 cm (12-24 inches), Spread: 38-45 cm (15-18 inches) Part-shade to full shade. USDA Zones: 3-8.


Hosta 'Blue Umbrellas' has blue-green leaves that are cupped downward (hence the name umbrellas). The pale lavender flowers are carried on tall stems that can reach 40 or more inches. This is a large hosta that has thick, corrugated foliage (helping with slug resistance). Part-shade to full shade. Height: 30-60 cm (12-24 inches), Spread: 60-90 cm (24-36 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.


Another perennial that caught my eye was this silver-green Pulmonaria.

Pulmonaria longifolia 'Diana Clare' has narrow silver-green leaves that are lightly speckled with green on the edges of its foliage early in the season.  A silvery patina develops as the season progresses. Deep violet-blue flowers appear early in the spring and soften to a purplish-pink. This plant likes moist, rich, well-drained soil. Part-shade to full shadeHeight: 30-60 cm (8-12 inches), Spread: 38-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA Zones: 3-8.

While flowers did not play a dominant role in these shade plantings, there were some beautiful blooms in among the ferns and hostas. 


Gardeners have long had a fascination with wild orchids. Of the 15,000 species recognised by botanists, relatively few are found in North America and even fewer are native to the forests of Quebec. Lady Slippers are the most prevalent of these wild orchids. The Latin name, Calceolus mariae, translates roughly as "Virgin Mary Our Lady's Slipper."

Elsie incorporated a wild, yellow Lady Slipper she found growing on the property along the streambanks into her plantings. She was also gifted some white and pink Lady Slipper's that were collected from the wild by gardening friends. 

A few Tips for Growing Lady Slipper Orchids

Lady slipper orchids have experienced a bit of decline in recent years due to habitat loss and a reduction in the number of tiny bees the flowers depend on for pollination. Today, collecting orchids is prohibited but you can find plants at specialist nurseries (Fraser's Thimble Farms in British Columbia would be one example).  

The Lady Slippers at Les Jardin des Métis bloom from late Apri into June. Fall is the best time to plant them. For bare-rooted plants, dig a hole and create a central mound. Position the eyes about an inch deep and spread bare roots over the mound. Cover with soil and water well. Apply a water-soluble fertilizer once a week when new growth appears in the spring. Nutrients and consistent moisture are necessary right into the summer for the plant to produce next year's shoots. If well-sighted and cared for properly, the number of blooming stems can double each year. 

Lady Slipper orchids prefer morning sun and afternoon shade. They like evenly moist conditions, but not soggy soil. Loose, free-draining soil with lots of organic matter is key to having success with them.

Divide every 3-5 years in the fall.

Note: Lady Slipper Orchids vary widely so this is a general guide. 


I particularly liked this pairing of two annuals with the backdrop of green ferns. Planted on the outer edge of a flowerbed, the two types of Nicotiana were growing in a bright pocket of sunlight (part-shade). I could not find a plant tag for the white Flowering Tobacco, Nicotiana but could well be Nicotiana alata grandiflora

Flowering Tobacco, Nicotiana alata grandiflora is a long-blooming heirloom that has fragrant white flowers that are attractive to butterflies. It likes moist, rich soil and grows 3-5 ft tall. Full sun or bright shade. USDA zones 9-10 (or is a self-seeding annual in more northern garden zones.)


Identified on a plant tag as Flowering Tobacco, Nicotiana x sanderae 'Perfume Lime'  I had difficulty finding references on this plant, but I did locate a similar-looking annual flower.

Nicotiana langsdorfii has delicate lime-green flowers. It likes moist, rich soil. It can be grown in sun but has the best green color in bright shade.

Woodland Lily, Lilium martagon var. albuim may carry as many as 30-50 
pure white flowers on a single stem. 


Scattered in amongst all the other shade perennials were tiny pink and white Martagon lilies.

To find lilies for her garden Elsie had to order bulbs from specialized growers in England. She planted white Lilium martagon var. albuim and pink Lilium martagon var. cattaniae beside her blue poppies, under crabapples and in among her ferns.

Growing Martagon Lilies

Martagon lilies are one of the oldest lilies in cultivation and can live for decades in the same place. They are native to Asia and Europe where they thrive in the dappled light on the edges of meadows. 

Martagon lilies can be grown from seed but they can take up to seven years to mature and flower, so it's best to purchase bulbs. Martagon lilies require patience. In the first growing season, the bulbs reestablish a root system. It can even take a couple of years for them to get established enough to even put in an appearance. The advice I have found suggests that planting them in the fall gives these lilies the best start.

Good drainage is key to get Martagon lilies through the winter. They hate soggy soil and will rot, so dig in some humus-rich, organic matter. Dappled shade is best. The blooms on a single stem are numerous, but each flower is small, so plant them twelve inches apart in groups of three bulbs. Planting depth depends on the bulb size. Bulbs can vary in size, so the best guidance is to plant them two and a half times the diameter of the bulb. Water deeply rather than often.  

A granular fertilizer (10-10-10) should be applied in early spring and after they flower. Removing the part of the stem that carries the flowers will halt seed production and concentrate the plant's energy on producing a bigger bulb. The bigger the bulb, the better the display of flowers.

Cut the plant to the ground once the leaves have aged to yellow.

Lilium martagon var. cattaniae

Foxglove

Elsie was a self-taught gardener who oversaw the maintenance of her summer retreat well into her eighties. When she passed away in 1958, the property passed to her son Bruce who did not share his mother's passion for gardening. Nature quickly began to reclaim the space. Thankfully for us, the government of Quebec bought the property in 1961 and opened the garden to the public the following year.

Elsie genius was to recognise that her property overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence was the perfect setting for a northern garden.  Each summer, thousands of visitors to Les Jardin des Métis are grateful for that foresight. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Our Visit to Les Jardins de Métis, Part 1–The Long Walk


For those of us who have been digging and dividing perennials, weeding, and dragging hoses around in the heat, gardening might seem to be an odd hobby for Elsie Reford's doctor to recommend while she recovered from surgery.

Elsie Stephen Reford 1897. Photo by William Notman& Son from the Collection of the Musée McCord D Histoire D' Canadienne.

The oddity of the doctor's advice is very much about class and the time period in which Elsie lived. Up until the time of her surgery, Elsie had spent her summers horseback riding, hunting and salmon fishing at Estevan Lodge, the country estate on the Gaspé Peninsula she had inherited from her wealthy uncle Sir George Stephen.

The doctor counselling Elsie to take up gardening in her fifty-second year wasn't suggesting she herself do the hard physical labour that gardening demands. Instead, he was suggesting that she might direct and manage a team of hardy fellows to do the difficult work of creating a garden for her.

Elsie Stephen Reford 1895. Photo by William Notman& Son from the Collection of the Musée McCord D Histoire D' Canadienne.

Elsie Reford was the eldest daughter of a humble, but hard-working Irish immigrant who had risen in the ranks to become the president of the Lake of the Woods Milling Company. After being educated in Montreal and later at finishing schools in Paris, Dresden and Germany, Elsie returned to Quebec ready to take her place in society.

She married Robert Wilson Reford, the eldest son of a prominent member of the Montreal shipping industry. She had two sons and busied herself with a number of civic, social and philanthropic causes.

A view of Estevan Lodge circa 1942.

The house as it looks today.


The view of the Gaspé Peninsula at the end of the pathway seen in the previous picture.

When Estevan Lodge passed from her uncle to her, Elsie had the land surveyed and fenced. The lodge she inherited was a large, rambling one-story building that Sir George had built to accommodate hunting and fishing parties in country comfort.

There is a website devoted to Elsie Reford's life that may be of interest. It has pictures like the one above showing Elsie fishing on the Métis River. Elsie loved nature and the great outdoors. ElsieReford.ca

Sadly during Sir George's lifetime, he had little opportunity to visit the remote property, so he opened it every summer to family and close friends. As a girl and later as the wife of a wealthy businessman, Elsie and her family spent part of each summer at her uncle's estate.

To complete the changes to the lodge, Elsie had a second story added to accommodate her family, guests and staff. In the end, it was not the prettiest of summer homes, but it did have a number of grand rooms and a generous covered porch with long rows of Adirondack chairs that awaited visiting seasonal guests.




For a number of years, Estevan Lodge remained a simple summer retreat, but with her doctor's encouragement, Elsie began to toy with the idea of adding a garden along a stream that flowed through the property.


The very early beginnings of The Long Walk (from ElsieReford.ca)

Creating a garden well north of her home in Montreal was bound to be a difficult task. The soil was poor and the climate was harsh. Nurseries were hundreds of miles to the south, so even getting plants would not be easy. Nevertheless, making a garden was a challenge that Elsie embraced.  In the first few years, she had garden beds carved out of the surrounding conifer forest, banked the stream with stones, built steps, bridges and a lookout.

Then to link the lodge with the garden along the stream, she created a 90-metre double herbaceous border flanked by dry stone walls that became known as "The Long Walk". It is in this grand garden we will begin our tour.

I should mention before we go much further that I visited the garden on July 18th. Normally the flowers I saw blooming in July might flower in mid-June here in Southern Ontario. This will give you a better idea of how far north this garden is. The gardening season at Reford Gardens is jam-packed into a few short months.

Dianthus growing in front of the dry stone wall that borders The Long Walk.

Walking from Estevan Lodge to The Long Walk I came across a patch of the most delicate Dianthus. I thought I'd share them with you before we head into the main garden.





Here is our first view of The Long Walk. The sheer size of the flowerbeds that flank the walkway are impressive. The dark green of the Quebec forest makes our destination feel a bit mysterious.




This huge garden was meant to be Elsie's horticultural showpiece. The only straight line in the garden, it offered a view north to the St Lawrence River and beyond.

To make up for the soil's deficiencies, Elsie had peat and sand mixed with gravel gathered from the beaches along the Gaspé. She bartered salmon from the Métis River in exchange for leaves from a neighbour's grove (the leaves shredded to make compost).

Elsie ordered plants from nurseries across Canada and in the United Kingdom. As her knowledge of plants grew more confident, she began collections of her favourites; peonies, roses, gentians, poppies, azaleas and primula.

In the fall of 1933, she ordered no less than 830 peonies. Common perennials were pushed out in favour of more exotic choices like the blue meconopsis for which the garden is famous.


Not an inch of ground is wasted! All the perennials are packed in together for maximum show.
 This dense planting would also deter weeds.




Closeups from the lowest step in the two flower borders (left to right): Thyme, Salvia, light purple Campanula and pink Dianthus.

As in traditional English gardens, the plantings were stepped, with perennials arranged from shortest along the edges of the pathway to tallest at the back of each flowerbed. 


A dwarf Campanula from the lowest step in the two flower borders.

Starting on the lowest step are plants like Creeping or Moss Phlox, Dianthus (Pinks), Campanula, Salvia and Creeping Thyme. Good drainage would be essential to help plants like Dianthus and Thyme make it through the rigours of a Quebec winter.


On the next step, there is a wide assortment of annuals that contribute to summer-long colour. These annuals include plants like Snapdragons, Salvia, annual Phlox, Lavatera and Sweet William.

In amongst the annuals are beautiful roses primarily in shades of pink.

Pink Lavatera

Blue Floss Flower (Ageratum), Annual Salvia and pink Snapdragons.


Pink roses in a long row (Sorry could not find an identifier for these particular roses).


Mallow, Malope trifida 

Annual Phlox, Phlox drummondii 'Isabellina' and Rosa 'Warwick Castle'

Hybrid Tea Rose, Rosa 'Peace'



On the next tier, there is a glorious row of pink peonies.  I felt very fortunate to have arrived at their peak.

Two lines of deep blue delphinium tower above the peonies. These stately flowers are set off by the green backdrop of deciduous trees that flank the flowerbeds.


Smitten by the success of her early gardening efforts, Elsie began to spend most of her days in her garden from May through mid-October. While she did little of the heaviest manual work, she was the garden's designer and manager, choosing the plants and deciding where they should be placed. She weeded, planted and deadheaded flowers. 

Exiled to Montreal in the winter, she poured through garden catalogues and read the latest gardening books. At first, her plant choices were timid, but quickly enough, she developed favourites and ordered plants from further afield. 

The gardens at Estevan Lodge grew in size and scope to accommodate Elsie's burgeoning plant collection. Botanical gardens have a long history in Europe, but less so in North America. The emergence of a cultured upper class in the mid-to-late nineteenth century changed this. Gardens became a place where plants were collected and displayed. Elsie's own father had amassed a large number of orchids in the glass conservatory of her childhood home in Montreal.




Lilies were Elsie's absolute favourites. She loved their fragrance, their exotic flowers and even the challenge of growing them in a climate where they had never been attempted. 

When Elsie first began to grow lilies, they were relatively unknown in that part of Canada. She had to order lilies from specialized growers in England. Before her bulbs were first planted, Elsie had three-foot trenches dug. They were then and filled with a mix of organic matter, wood ash, bonemeal, fine gravel and lime grit to improve the drainage.


Most of the lilies were still tightly closed when I visited the garden, but I am sure they would put on a spectacular display well into August.


While I thought The Long Walk was absolutely beautiful, it did feel very much like a traditional English garden had dropped from the sky into the Quebec landscape. Pretty as it was, I couldn't help but feel the garden was a little out of step with its Canadian setting.

In an upcoming post, we'll head into the conifer forest to see the garden that Elsie created along the stream bank. This woodland garden was my favourite part of Les Jardins de Métis (Reford Gardens).