A closely gardened secret

Posted Nov. 21, 2008, at 5:33 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:28 a.m.

Eighty-five miles northeast of Quebec City in a town called La Malbaie is a private garden paradise open to the public only four days a year.

Jardins Les Quatre Vents have been called the most aesthetically satisfying and horticulturally exciting gardens in North America. Frank Cabot and his wife, Anne Perkins Cabot, developed the gardens on a summer estate that had been in the family for many years.

Gardening is nothing new to 83-year-old Frank Cabot. He first gardened at Stonecrop, his former home in Cold Spring, N.Y., which is now a public garden and teaching institution. In 1989 he founded the Garden Conservancy, an organization devoted to the preservation of exceptional private gardens.

In July, I had the opportunity to visit Cabot’s northernmost gardens in Quebec with a tour sponsored by the Garden Writers Association and led by garden writer Larry Hodgson. Hodgson has written a number of garden books in French and English, he is an international garden tour guide, and he knows Cabot personally. In order to see these gardens, one must make an appointment by calling months ahead of time to purchase tickets. The gardens are open to the public only four days per year. Because of Hodgson’s reputation in the gardening world and his knowledge of the details of these exquisite gardens, we were allowed the opportunity to view them as part of our regional Garden Writers Association meeting.

The group consisted of about 45 professional garden photographers and writers who have a passion for anything horticultural. The opportunity to see gardens with this group is an experience in itself. Almost everyone had cameras to record the experience. Pen and paper were always handy to jot down the taxonomic names of plants or the thoughts racing through our heads as we tried to absorb all the details.

The members of this group know gardens. They have spent years visiting and photographing gardens and have developed an instinctive understanding of what constitutes a great garden. They have cultivated the ability to analyze the abstract ideas and spirit of a garden and express it in words and photos so that others may share the pleasure. Even more exciting than having the opportunity to see these wonderful private gardens was the good fortune to experience the gardens with kindred spirits who truly understood the uniqueness of the landscape design, recognized the unusual and often unique plants and could identify the artistic tricks used to enhance the experience.

Cabot transformed, manipulated and enhanced part of the northern boreal forest into a gardener’s pleasure palace. He has a reverence for what nature has provided and uses the native plant materials extensively. He has an instinctive understanding of what is pleasing to the eye and what stimulates the senses.

He takes full advantage of the views by making sure that the distant hills and bays are not obscured by trees. Yet, he also works at controlling what can be viewed. The gardens are filled with statuary, water features, fences, arbors and more that can be seen only from particular vantage points. His creativity and love of superior plant material is unmistakable. Cabot knows how to use the “wow factor.” Just when you believe that you have been truly and totally impressed, another part of the garden comes into view and the only thing you can think is, “Wow!”

The gardens at Les Quatre Vents, so named because sometimes it appears that the wind is coming from four directions at once, feature shade gardens, extensive kitchen gardens, perennial beds, meadow gardens and stream gardens. But in addition to the usual gardens one would expect to find in a large home landscape, some very different and localized twists can be found. The vegetation surrounding the paths to and from the Japanese Pavilions feature gigantic ostrich ferns and some of the largest-leafed plants found in the northern hemisphere. A large collection of primroses, one of Cabot’s favorite plants, borders a series of paths through the woods. The Pigeonnier Garden features a large building that appears to be a large dovecote when, in fact, it houses an exclusive room for entertaining. (We were not allowed to enter).

Cabot’s affiliation with the North American Rock Garden Society is evident. Interesting and unusual rock garden plants are featured in dedicated raised beds as well as unceremoniously imbedded in the cracks of rock stairs and unexpectedly emerging from cracks in the cobblestone courtyard. One would think that these small horticultural treasures had always been part of the environment in La Malbaie. That’s what Cabot would want you to think. He uses plants like an artist uses paint. Les Quatre Vents is a masterpiece that must be experienced.

Francis H. Cabot has written a book about the development of his garden in La Malbaie, Quebec. The book, called “The Greater Perfection,” has frequently been called one of the best books ever written about the making of a garden by its creator. If you would like to visit Les Quatre Vents, tickets for four Saturdays in the summer of 2009 can be purchased by calling 1-418-434-2209 at the Centre Ecologique de Port-au-Saumon. Tickets go on sale on Dec. 1, and they usually sell out within days.

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