In the summer of 1926, Elsie Reford began transforming her fishing camp on the Metis River into a garden. Located 220 miles north-east of Quebec City, at 48.51º N. latitude, the gardens she created over the next thirty years were the northernmost in the eastern half of North America. Known to some as Les Jardins de Métis, to others as Reford Gardens, the gardens have become famous since they were opened to the public in 1962.
Gardening was by no means her first calling. From the early 1900s she had come to Grand-Metis to fish the pools on the river. She also rode, canoed and hunted. She continued fishing until 1926 when an operation for appendicitis intervened. Ordered to convalesce following surgery, her doctor suggested gardening as a genteel alternative to fishing. She was 54 years old. During the summer of 1926, she began laying out the gardens and supervised their construction. The gardens would take ten years to build. The construction would extend over more than twenty acres. When she began, with the exception of a flagpole, a cedar hedge and a tree-lined driveway, the property was barely landscaped at all. The hay was cut to provide feed for the horses. Flowerpots were arranged on the veranda. It was, after all, a fishing lodge.
Elsie Reford’s is a garden of character. It is bold and unique, innovative but traditional. Few gardens have been built in such difficult conditions. Hundreds of miles from the nearest nursery, she faced countless challenges when she set herself the task of building a garden. She took a spruce forest and shaped it into a garden that boasted one of the largest collections of plants in its day. She excavated and dug, built stone walls and moved trees. She brought boulders from neighbouring fields. She created fine compost required for exotic plants with leaves she had bartered from local farmers. Where experienced plantsmen had failed, she succeeded in transplanting or propagating rare species, like azaleas and Meconopsis, and adapting them to the Quebec climate. She trained local men, farmers and fishing guides, making them expert gardeners. Together, they built a remarkable garden over three decades.