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Learning From A Great Quebec Garden:

Francis Cabot’s Les Quatre Vents
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

June 11, 2006

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The bread garden: A pair of clipped little leaf lindens echo the roof line of the bread oven and in the foreground thuja is trimmed in the shape of loaf of bread.
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Japanese pavilion: Built according to ancient Japanese construction techniques by Japanese master carpenter Hiroshi Sakaguchi over several seasons, this beautiful structure overlooks a pond and waterfalls in peaceful ravine setting. Cabot writes: "My aim was to re-create an authentic Japanese structure in a setting that was peaceful and Asiatic in spirit, and not try to re-create a Japanese garden as such. It took 10 years to achieve and three years before the master carpenter who built it was found."
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The graceful Pigeonnier: Cabot writes that ducks sometimes surprise visitors by flying through the arched opening to land on the reflecting pool in front of the structure.
One of my favorite winter activities is reading garden books – not ‘how to’ books – but memoirs or accounts of the making of great gardens. The more personal they are and the more ambitious the garden, the better. A gorgeous new book in this vein has kept me splendid company this winter. It’s Francis H. Cabot’s The Greater Perfection, (Hortus Press, W.W. Norton & Co., 2001), an account of the making of Les Quatre Vents, his famous garden in Quebec. 
Francis Cabot’s two architect uncles first laid out the early parts of the garden in the 1930s and 1950s around a house built by his parents in the late 1920s. (His family was among a group of wealthy Americans who built summer homes on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec’s magnificent Charlevoix region.) In 1975 Cabot took charge of and began to expand the gardens at Les Quatre Vents. 
The Greater Perfection is his account of the challenges, problems and pleasures of making this singular garden into the jewel that is today. It’s a visual feast with photographs by five leading garden photographers, but unlike so many glossy coffee table books, this one is also a terrific read, especially if you’re fascinated by garden design. 
I had the opportunity to visit Les Quatre Vents six years ago on a tour for garden writers organized by Quebec writer and garden tour leader Larry Hodgson. On arriving, we were greeted by Mr. Cabot, who apologized for the state of the garden: a certain Martha Stewart had been shooting a commercial for several days and her crew’s video equipment hadn’t been cleared out yet. We happily overlooked the encampment of TV clutter on the main lawn – and found the garden entrancing nonetheless.
The garden covers more than 20 acres, and we had about four hours to walk and view most of it – but we could easily have spent the entire day and come back the next. One starts at a series of cedar hedged garden rooms close to the house. These verdant little gardens enclose elegant reflecting pools, and inventive topiaries. One in particular prompted delighted smiles – two beautifully formed loaves of bread in cedar flanking an outdoor oven, which is actually used for bread baking. 
Past perennial bordered garden rooms, including a white garden, you come upon a small lake, and walk thorough naturalistic woodland plantings following the course of a stream. Then suddenly you look up at an exquisite three-and-a-half storey Pigeonnier, modeled on a traditional French-style building, its elegant form doubled in mirror-like reflecting pool. 
Other delights include oversized frog musicians – enter a hedged garden room and a hidden motion detector sets a Dixieland quartet to playing; if that’s not to your taste, go in the opposite direction and listen to froggy chamber musicians “play” Mozart’s Flute and Harp concerto. How many serious gardens are also this playful?
In the woods you experience a Japanese interlude: a pair of authentically constructed Japanese pavilions contemplate one another over a graveled courtyard. They back onto another small lake and stone waterfalls surrounded by shade and foliage plants. From there, you wander through shady gardens filled with woodland treasures to visit the swimming pool for a breathtaking view of the mighty St. Lawrence. And then – can there really be more? Well, how about a walk through an abundant kitchen garden?
There’s a lot to take in. Fortunately, the book includes an easy-to-follow map on the inside covers that makes the garden’s layout clear. I found myself referring to the map time and again to study the layout as I was reading about the development of a particular section. 
At the heart of the book is Cabot’s own voice, detailing the process of solving many design problems, as well as the actual work of planning, planting and building, and recovering from missteps along the way. For example, a huge wooden arch that terminates an important view fell over after eight years because the wood had rotted. Cabot admits that until the surrounding trees matured, his wife thought the structure, which she called “Frank’s erection”, a mistake. When it fell, he wondered if she was right. Fortunately, the arch (originally modeled after an arch in India designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens) was rebuilt using steel clad with wood and given a proper concrete foundation. Today, it looks so right.
I’ve always felt that garden design is one of the most difficult arts to master. And although I’ve had some recognition for my own perennial plantings and actually did hang out my shingle as a garden designer for several years (before willingly giving it up), I have never been able to put into words exactly why I dislike designing gardens. Now I understand, courtesy Mr. Cabot: “Gardening involves so many other appealing things devoid of the mental anguish that composing a perennial border entails (such as pruning espaliers and dividing primulas), and where one’s judgments and tastes aren’t so blatantly exposed.” 
That this most accomplished of gardeners experiences this peculiar form of mental anguish too – that he frets about his borders being too narrow and his plantings not working as planned – can only give the rest of us hope. Could the sheer stress of garden design be perfectly normal?
On the subject of stressing over the garden layout, Cabot tells the story of inviting eminent British garden designer Russell Page to the garden for a consultation: 
“Russell Page stayed at Les Quatre Vents for two nights and one long, exhausting day, which reduced me to a nervous wreck. Every hour of daylight was devoted to touring, examining and discussing every element.... I was privileged to have the eminent author of The Education of a Gardener giving me the most intensive one-day individually tutored crash-course in garden design. By the end of it I was considering taking up my unfortunate game of golf once again as a less threatening avocation..... Looking at any vista, especially if it led down to the water’s edge, where there were plantings that intervened: ‘Get rid of that fuzz!’ Looking at many of the elements I had grown up with: ‘What possessed them to do that?’ ” 
Cabot later reflects: “It was a wonderful, practical seminar in some of the basics of garden design and although it was thoroughly grueling I just wish it had lasted longer, for every forceful point has become part of my frame of reference. Today there is no fuzz anywhere.” And imagine: Page never sent a bill. Cabot paid his travel expenses and asked him to forward his bill, but Page simply thanked him for covering the expenses. (At the time of his visit to Quebec, Page had been working on the sculpture garden at the headquarters of PepsiCo in Purchase, New York. He died only months later.) 
The joy of this book is that Francis Cabot writes marvelously about a landscape he has loved from childhood – and, although his garden is rarified, he remains at heart a hands-on dirt gardener, spending many hours dividing and transplanting perennials, weeding, replanting, mulling over how a planting could be improved, and all the other tasks that keep gardeners occupied through the growing season and beyond. 
He has help, of course, and graciously gives credit where it is due. But like the rest of us, he dreams, he frets, he corrects mistakes – and best of all, he shares. It seems to me that people who make great gardens rarely do it just for themselves, but because they can’t help but share their passion with other garden lovers. Francis Cabot has created and nurtured a brilliant garden, and now in this very personal book, he lets us in on it. I can’t think of a more inspiring read to melt away the winter doldrums. 

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