Quebec historic gardens enchant

Others may pine for castles in Spain or haciendas in Mexico, but I dream of the mountains of Quebec, of villages along the St. Lawrence and of two ancestral gardens rescued from decline. One is just outside Quebec City, the other guards the entrance to the Gaspé.

Walk back into another century at Les Jardins du Domaine Joly-de Lotbinière. In 1828, when Pierre-Gustave Joly, a wine merchant from France, married a Canadian heiress, Julie-Christine Chartier de Lotbinière, they bought property next to her family’s seigneury. On a peninsula with steep slate cliffs, the couple built a manor house designed like a large version of a Swiss chalet surrounded by vast grounds.

Their son, Henri-Gustave, had a distinguished political career. He became premier of Quebec and lieutenant governor of British Columbia, but his true legacy was the expansion of the Domaine.

An enthusiastic traveller, he always brought back floral souvenirs for his “garden of experiments.” In the 1890s, he added a tennis court, bowling green and reading pavilion. The Domaine became an archetypal example of the picturesque style with elaborate gardens, sweeping lawns and a large potager (kitchen garden).

Joly is regarded as an early ecologist because of his passion for trees and concerns about deforestation. In 1882, he ordered more than 10,000 black walnut seeds from Ontario, Wisconsin and Montreal, at that time the most northerly spot where the trees had been acclimatized. Despite the peninsula’s benign microclimate, the harsh winters killed most of them, but 260 have survived to the present, and this historic black walnut plantation is the pride of the Domaine.

Expropriation and restoration
The 300-acre estate was expropriated in 1967; at one time, the government planned to turn it into a hotel and golf course. Local inhabitants came to the rescue and began to restore it in the 1990s. Now, the old garden blooms again, with the support of a foundation, volunteers from the region and donations of plants and compost from local nurseries.

Plan to spend a full day wandering through the theme gardens — white, cutting, curiosity, of the senses, vegetable. There are sweeping avenues of oaks and beeches, a giant Norway spruce (Picea abies), which has cunningly layered itself into three, and a perennial alley from the 1930s. Heirloom vegetables and herbs of all sorts are grown in the potager. There are benches, gazebos, archways and a century-old greenhouse where they grow and sell unusual plants and small trees. The house, where five generations spent idyllic summers, is slowly being refurbished.

While the de Lotbinières played croquet, snipped roses and gathered small summer turnips at the Domaine, Elsie Reford (1872-1967), favourite niece of Lord Mount Stephen (of CPR fame), was catching salmon at her uncle’s fishing camp near Grand-Métis. In 1918, he gave her the property. After a bout of appendicitis in 1926 and under doctor’s orders to do something less strenuous, Reford took to gardening with a vengeance, sometimes instructing her gardeners on the subject. Much to the bemusement of local farmers, she would swap salmon for their leaves.

The Reford Gardens (Les Jardins de Métis) became famous in the 35 years that Reford devoted to them but were sold to the government and gradually declined. The property was rescued from privatization in 1995 by a consortium of the family and les Ateliers Plein Soleil handicrafts. Mrs. Reford’s great-grandson Alexander moved from a career as an historian at the University of Toronto to become director of the gardens.  

Visit in June and you will see flaming bursts of rhododendrons, a jungle of yellow, orange and pink apple blossoms, irises, and Himalayan blue poppies, the dazzling symbol of the gardens, popping up everywhere. Here are woods and meadows, winding walks, rock gardens and rustic bridges. Yellow loosestrife bends over the stream; wood anemones glow among the ostrich ferns. An old millstone has become a natural bonsai covered in mosses, lichens and tiny plants.

During an August visit, I recognized many favourites from my own patch of woods: green swirls of capillaire du Canada, or maidenhair — very good “for consumption and coughs.” There were feathery sprays of astilbe, lilies, foxgloves, columbines, roses, and towering spikes of delphinium.

Take time to sit on the porch of Estevan Lodge, awash with flower baskets. Admire rows of mountain pines shaped like large green pincushions beyond the St. Lawrence, so wide here that it is called la mer. A zen garden by the sea.