Photo Story | Atlantic Canada, Sable Island and Gulf of Saint Lawrence

Jardins de Métis—Reford Gardens

© Dennis Minty

In 1925, a doctor advised Elsie Reford to give up her fishing lodge business and take up gardening instead. What was meant to have been a gentle convalescence activity turned into world-renowned gardens, now a National Historic Site of Canada. Dennis Minty teaches us more in this beautiful photo story.
Reford gardens bee on white flower

© Dennis Minty

“Why not take up gardening?” said the doctor to Elsie Reford, while she was convalescing from an illness in 1925. Perhaps he thought, at age fifty-three, she might not have the strength for the other outdoor activities she loved, like caribou hunting and salmon fishing. But it seems the doctor knew little of Elsie’s determination, for it’s hard to imagine that he could have predicted her gardening on this scale.

Walking through the gardens

© Dennis Minty

So began Elsie’s three-decade conversion of an inherited twenty-acre fishing camp on the banks of the Métis River. She turned it into one of the finest botanical gardens in Canada. So fine that it has attracted five million visitors since 1962 and been designated a National Historic Site of Canada, a prime example of an English-inspired garden.

Irises Reford Gardens

© Dennis Minty

The gardens are on the Gaspé Peninsula, next to the Métis River that flows north into the Saint Lawrence, about halfway between Rimouski and Matane, Québec.

Gardens amongst spruce trees

© Dennis Minty

Dominated by spruce forest, the site lacked fertile soil, so many plants needed to be given better growing conditions to thrive. Trading salmon for compost, Elsie relied on the help of local Grand-Métis farmers during the hungry days of the 1930s Great Depression.

Blossoms on trees jardins de metis

© Dennis Minty

The surrounding conifer forest did, however, provide some benefit by sheltering the site from the salt-laden winds of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and creating a gentle microclimate—a sanctuary fit for the most delicate blossoms.

Pink blossoms Reford Gardens

© Dennis Minty

Another of Elsie’s challenges was that she was situated hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest nurseries, during a time when road travel was not nearly as convenient as it is today. However, with her family overseas in the import/export business, she managed to import many of the plants from Europe and beyond.

Himalayan blue poppy Reford Gardens

© Dennis Minty

One of her imports was the Himalayan blue poppy, an icon of the garden that seems to symbolize Elsie’s tenacity.

Gardens and hedges surrounding house

© Dennis Minty

Being a horticulturalist was not one of Elsie’s goals, at least initially. Rather, as the daughter of a successful businessman and a member of the Montreal bourgeois, she had gone to finishing school in Paris and Dresden, where she became fluent in French and German.

Sunlit fern Reford Gardens

© Dennis Minty

As a philanthropist, she was active in civic, social, and political issues of the day, with maternal and child health her greatest concern. Her great grandson wrote that Elsie “was at war with the superficiality of the world.” She always wanted to change it for the better.

Reford gardens and stream

© Dennis Minty

Perhaps her greatest contribution was her gardens, which are deeply rooted in the community. Over the years, she hired and trained local farmers and fishing guides to become master gardeners.

Visitors Reford Gardens sitting on wooden chairs

© Dennis Minty

In her will, Elsie left the property to her son Bruce, who lacked her passion for place and put it up for sale. The government of Québec intervened and bought it. More than thirty years later, in 1995, Elsie’s great-grandson, Alexander Reford, took over the garden’s management.

Contemporary art garden display

© Dennis Minty

Under Alexander’s direction, the current team works to combine the historical with the contemporary and rethink what a public space can be. For example, each year artists and designers are invited to create new works in nature, which are left for some years to become intertwined with the surroundings.

Blossoming tree over pathway

© Dennis Minty

The fifteen themed gardens are linked by meandering, fern-lined footpaths through forests, small meadows, and alongside streams.

Lupins Reford Gardens

© Dennis Minty

There’s the Home Garden, Alpine Garden, the Flowered Meadow, Stream Garden, the Pond, the Woodland Walk, and more.

Bleeding hearts flowers Reford Gardens

© Dennis Minty

Today more than three thousand varieties of plants thrive here under the care of a passionate team of gardeners inspired by Elsie. What was once a diversion for a convalescent, is now a world-class green space.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.

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