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).


  1. CanadianGardenJoy
    Hello Jennifer .. I have seen a documentary on Elsie and this famous garden and I was fascinated by it .. I also feel the way you do about the style .. as gorgeous as it is, I would hope that perhaps they would bring in the specialized natives again one day. To reflect a more "Canadian" feeling. Having said that .. this was the garden that previously set me on the path of the elusive blue poppy .. which at one point, years ago, I did mange to nurse it into blooming but just that once .. then I gave up ! LOL
    I look forward to your next post about the forest .. woodland gardens are my weakness.

    1. Hi Joy,I am not sure how the body that oversees Redford Gardens approaches its history–whether they wish to stay true to the plants lists Elsie envisioned for her garden or wether they take a more progressive approach. I have a feeling that they are staying true to Elsie's original vision. (That being said, the garden does host a International Garden Festival that features contemporary gardens.)
      At the time that Elsie was gardening, there was more of a fascination for exotic plants than there was for native plants. Her focus as a plant collector seems to have been primarily on rare and unusual perennials.
      Joy, I am glad to hear that you had some luck with blue poppies however short-lived. I am dying to try my hand at growing them myself Joy and it is nice to know that blue poppies are still possible despite our hot dry summers here in Southern Ontario.

  2. What a fantastic garden and lovely flowers...I just love every picture!!!

  3. Jennifer, beautiful pictures! Those flowers look gorgeous, they are so beautiful that I could stare at them all day! I grow dianthus since a long time but mine is all pink. I grow it from seeds which I planted some time ago: https://gardenseedsmarket.com/large-pink-dianthus-superbus-mix-seeds-dianthus-superbus-280-seeds.html . I grow it in a partial shade side because I heard it doesn't like full sun. I don't know if that's true but it's doing amazing!

    1. It's interesting that you've heard this type of Dianthus does not like full sun. Most Dianthus like full sun, but the flowers I saw at Reford Gardens were in part-shade. The flowers are very delicate, so intuitively it makes sense. Thanks for the link to seeds. I may order some!


Apologies, comments are disabled at this time.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.