Reford Gardens: Mastering the Arts of Plants
Let’s set out in search of a unique collection of perennials on a site rich in history and of an exceptional tranquility, at the gateway to the Gaspésie region. Welcome to Reford Gardens.
From June to October each year, close to 100,000 visitors travel toward the Gaspésie region, curious to experience the horticultural wonders of Reford Gardens. It’s easy to understand why … The site, both educational and playful in design, is impressive and soothing. You are bound to spend several hours there discovering the immense garden, the museum, a restaurant that serves local cuisine, the ERE 132 Eco Home, and a festival of interactive architectural installations ideal for family enjoyment. Not to mention the views of the river! We begin our visit at the Estevan Lodge, dedicated to the woman who cared for the site for 50 years: Elsie Reford.
“I used to come here as a child, but since 1995, I’ve dedicated my life to the site and its development,” says Alexander Reford, Director of Reford Gardens for the past 25 years. Trained as a historian, he wanted to offer people a better understanding of this magnificent site and the history of his great‑grandmother. The founder of the gardens was a rich, educated woman who was involved in politics and social causes. She was also a fishing and horseback‑riding enthusiast. In a certain way, she led a double life: she lived in an English‑speaking neighbourhood in Montréal during the winter, but was in love with the nature in the Métis area, where she spent all her summers from 1904 to 1958 and where she created this magnificent space. “She always fascinated me because Québec women who are so much in the forefront, not only in their families, but also in society, are fairly rare and little known,” explains Alexander, who is passionate about researching his ancestor.
A favourable climate
Strolling through the dozens of paths of flowers and plants in these historic gardens, you understand the source of her dedication: the light is brilliant and the coastline is of an indescribable beauty. You also realize the enormity of the work accomplished by Elsie Reford. She succeeded in growing rare flowers discovered in other countries and in creating magical pathways of plants and rocks. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to learn that she was a self‑taught horticulturist. “In those days, you learned through practice. She created her gardens very much through trial and error,” says Alexander.
Elsie Reford started a small revolution with her gardens as it had been believed for a long time that nothing could grow in this land of long winters. “Peonies, yes. Lilacs, no problem. But anything beyond that rather limited selection of plants would be summarily dismissed by people as being impossible. Eventually, Elsie discovered that it was actually the perfect location for perennials,” says her great‑grandson. “Unlike Montréal where the heatwaves kill fragile plants, here, it’s the opposite. It’s never too hot. Winter arrives quickly, and we get two to three metres of snow annually. What’s better to protect a plant than snow?” points out the Director.
He also explains that the flowers stay very vibrant the whole summer because the cool nights trigger an ideal nighttime renewal process. “In late June, everything is fresh, green and alive. Here, the snow sticks around until early May, and then the plants pop out at lightning speed because they want to reproduce within the time they have. Some of our plants are very hardy. Our garden is full of blossoms that last for a longer time,” he says. Any time between June and October is therefore a good time to visit the Reford Gardens.
Preserving and showcasing the gardens’ wonders
From 1920 to 1958, Elsie Reford meticulously documented each day in her notebooks the work carried out by the gardeners. Her husband busied himself taking pictures, which is why the Reford Gardens also has a rich collection of archives. Today, the team of dedicated gardeners pay tribute to all those efforts and the passion behind them by preserving the site, and skillfully carrying out a horticultural scenography that showcases the plants and flowers in alignment with the rhythm at which they blossom. “In the collection of perennials, there are plants that are moved about during the blossoming period,” says Alexander. “There’s a whole science behind it, and the gardeners know how to adjust the plant and flower arrangements throughout the season.” In the paths and rock gardens on the vast site, you can admire peonies, blue poppies, geraniums, irises, primroses, rose bushes and bellflowers.
While it could seem that the Reford Gardens have always belonged to the Reford family, given that Alexander is now the Director, the story is a little more complex than that. It was a private site up to the point when Alexander’s grandfather Redford could no longer take care of it properly and subsequently sold it to the Québec government in 1961. At the time of the Quiet Revolution, the government had invested in tourism in eastern Québec because the Gaspésie region was in financial difficulty. The Reford Gardens became one of the major attraction hubs of a strategy to deploy public properties. Beginning in 1962, the gardens became a tourist site and visitors in the tens of thousands came to see them. “When I came on the scene in 1995, it was already a strong and established body,” says Alexander. “We created a not‑for‑profit organization, which bought the Reford Gardens from the Québec government. The site belongs to the NPO and not to me, but it has truly become a common heritage because everyone works to ensure it is preserved.”
Today, artists also contribute to the gardens’ landscape. They are invited to spend time in residence and seek inspiration from the surroundings for their creations. Since 2000, a large part of the site is dedicated to the International Garden Festival, which is held throughout the summer and where families can enjoy themselves. “It’s an exhibition of installations by landscape architects from Québec and elsewhere,” says Alexander. “It’s interactive and colourful, and complements the gardens’ other attractions.” You can spend time in quiet contemplation in one of the gardens and learn about the plants, and then, at the festival, have fun, run around, climb on things and jump on a trampoline.”
Education and creation are also at the heart of the efforts to develop the Reford Gardens. The gardens can offer a therapeutic and learning experience for those seeking a calm environment.
Elsie Reford would undoubtedly be proud of everything that her cherished gardens now offer. Through the work of her great‑grandson’s team, the Reford Gardens are today synonymous with preservation, creation and innovation. A site that allows us to dream and that is a necessary stopover in any getaway to the Gaspésie region.
Blog post written by Valérie Thérien
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