Story: AILSA FRANCIS
Photography: COURTESY OF LES QUATRES VENTS, MARGARET ROACH & KARL GERCENS
I have always thought that viewing a private garden as part of a guided tour is awkward at best, regimented at worst.
In most small tours, the maker of the garden is there. Sometimes they are on the sidelines eyeballing visitors, while others are front and center, openly answering questions. But they are always making sure (with a sideways glance or a well-placed comment) that no one steps on the delicate groundcover or choice alpine plant. There is a feeling of being in someone’s sacred space, experiencing their passions and also their frustrations.
There may be a million reasons why a gardener would allow hoards of admirers or curiosity seekers to tromp through their personal piece of heaven. It may be ego, charity, genuine interest in feedback or sharing of knowledge, or even sincere and well-placed pride—every garden tour is different and visitors can usually sense the maker’s motivation.
Les Quatres Vents, Quebec, Canada
A few years ago a friend and I booked a trip to visit the late Francis Cabot’s celebrated garden known as Les Jardins de Quatres-Vents (translated as “the four winds”) on the upper shore of the St-Lawrence River, north of Quebec City.
Because this garden is so admired and yet still in private hands, it opens for only eight tours on four days each summer and tickets go on sale a full six months in advance. The response is overwhelming and the guided tours are always sold out, with about 20 participants in each circuit.
Visitors, or shall I say, Cabot “disciples” are led in an orchestrated dance through the 15-hectare property: starting on the dirt road, lined by poplars, by the house, through the kitchen garden and out into each garden “room” throughout the grounds. The pace is quick and dawdling is not encouraged, as there are guides to move along the stragglers.
On this garden tour it is the "ghost" of Francis Cabot who accompanies you and it feels like less of a personal experience and more of a classical odyssey.
Francis Cabot was a self-taught horticulturalist and a showman. His garden celebrates artistry, whether it was his own or the very best stonemasons, Japanese craftsmen, garden designers or plantsmen he could hire. Indeed, Cabot championed the idea of the “open garden” and in that spirit, founded the Garden Conservancy in 1989 in the United States. He loved to show off his garden, as well as those of others who deserved attention and praise.
Surrounded by other tour participants, whispering in hushed tones, you recognize that you are not simply seeing a garden, you are seeing it through a mist of adoration.
The feeling that comes with this type of assembly, bordering on a religious gathering, is made all the more dramatic when you find yourself being funnelled through narrow openings, looking at the same view, not unlike a visitor to a cathedral. Moving as a group, the scale of everything shifts so that monumental structures, long borders and expansive views all make sense. It’s almost as though this garden only becomes alive when a moving and breathing collection of appreciative souls pass through it as one.
Margaret Roach’s Garden, Copake Falls, NY
Margaret Roach’s garden surrounds her clapboard house on a lot that feels like it could be in a clearing in the woods, but is actually part of a sleepy community in the picturesque Hudson Valley about two hours north of Manhattan. She moved permanently away from her hectic life in New York City in 2007 and now her 2.3-acre garden is her full-time canvas. Roach “gardens” in every square inch of her property, whether it is intensively in her vegetable patch or more loosely along the perimeter, she dialogues with plants and wildlife everywhere. As a plant lover, she has a gift for combining plants that have spectacular foliage and usefulness as groundcovers. Her interest in texture, shape and form don’t stop with annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and tender plants--she also has an eclectic collection of rustic glazed and terracotta pots, garden ornaments. Her garden tours are always immensely successful, with dozens of people streaming up her driveway, along her pathways, across her lawn and up to the top of the hill where the view of her house and the rest of the property make you feel as though you might be the only ones there.
The scale here is intimate and the tour autonomous. Even when you are walking amongst other admirers, the connection between you and the garden is deeply personal. So much so that it feels as though this might even be your own house and garden, on its most perfect day.
Her carefully curated plant vignettes are best appreciated up close, and views beckon you to approach them from afar. I felt quite at home here and my mind wandered, despite the lingering crowds, who I’m sure didn’t want to leave either. As I walked around, I contemplated the robust and floriferous honeysuckle vine embracing a porch post and wondered why it wasn’t covered in mildew like those I have grown; I appreciated the massing of Siberian cypress and its lacy effect on the slope above the frog pond; and I wondered how many times Roach bends over the same pond, rescuing drowning dragonflies or bumblebees.
The garden here speaks to the visitor in the language of the seasons, both in terms of duties and plant glories. This is likely in part due to the way in which Roach chronicles monthly garden chores in her blog, where she is generous and genuine, but also because her own hand is everywhere: the dried gourds on the windowsill, the bright red wheelbarrow leaning against the shed, the birdbath planted with succulents and the cluster of Rex begonias in pots nestled next to each other.
As for Roach herself, while crowds bustle back and forth, she stands unassumingly nearby identifying the must-have plants by their botanical names, describing how she makes her compost, rides her mower, tries to keep out deer and makes a living as a gardener, writer and blogger. Genuinely touched and incredulous that some of us would travel hours to visit, she seems shy but also earnest and more than willing to talk about her picture-perfect life here.
Duck Hill, North Salem, NY
Page Dickey’s garden at Duck Hill is no longer in her hands, but I had the pleasure of visiting it before she “down-sized” and moved away to Connecticut. Sitting under a tree near the house, she was happy to be approached by any one of us, but it was clear that this “Martha Stewart-esque” garden had finally become more than she and her husband could manage in their ‘mature’ years. *
Duck Hill is perched on a hillside, overlooking the well-heeled town of North Salem, New York. Dickey’s three-acre garden is mostly formal, or at least, formal in intent, with symmetrical garden rooms pushing out from the house, framed by immaculately manicured hedges.
The pairs of clipped boxwoods marking the entrances to these garden rooms are swollen to giant proportions, making squeezing through almost impossible. The pastel colored, old-fashioned plants that filled these spaces were buzzing with bees and heavy-laden with scent. Courteous visitors tried to give others space, maneuvering along shrinking crushed stone pathways so that the experience could be more private. Amongst both voluptuous and dainty roses, flowering dogwood, dwarf Korean lilac, buddleia, and perennials like catmint, peony and salvia we took it all in but also kept an eye downward so as not to step on a jaunty, but unexpected Verbascum.
Touring Dickey’s garden was like touring the progression of a gardening life. Dickey lived here for 33 years and the garden shows her early and exhausting gardening aspirations (privet hedges that require weekly clipping) as well as what I imagine had become another albatross—a huge composting area that might rival something you’d find at an expansive English country estate.
Indeed, the beds were a charming combination of design and plant volunteers, but it was the walk through the shady glen at the rear of the property, at once loose and cool, that gave the visitor a sense of where Dickey’s sensibility might be headed.
The woodland walk was a breath of fresh air, both in terms of temperature and design—a meandering journey that was both forgiving and comfortable to negotiate. Although it was clearly planted, it appeared to be entirely natural.
From this part of the property visitors could see much of the rest: the formal vegetable garden, the meadow, the swimming pool, and the hedged gardens and trees that surround the house, in some ways consuming it. It did not surprise me to read that Dickey and her husband, three dogs and other members of her animal menagerie finally set themselves free and moved to an 18th century meeting house for the Methodist-Episcopal church—simplicity.
After touring a number of incredible gardens, I have come to the conclusion that some only retain their mantle of magnificence when an adoring assembly, moving as one, tours them. On the other hand, more deeply personal gardens benefit from the crowds dispersing and each admirer finding their own way and making their own connections.