Two weeks ago we finally made the trek to La Malbaie, in the Charlevoix region of Quebec, to see Les Quatre Vents – Francis Cabot‘s garden of ‘Greater Perfection.’ Les Quatre Vents is considered one of Canada’s finest private gardens and is only open to the public four days of the year. After reading about it in various places and being excited by the prospect of seeing a distinguished garden in a climate zone close to ours, we started getting serious about planning the trip last November. It’s hard to believe all that’s left now is to post some pictures (including some from my aunt).
The drive to La Malbaie from Quebec City is incredibly hilly and probably holds a Canadian record for most signs per capita warning for moose. Nonetheless, it is quite beautiful and affords some top-notch views of the St. Lawrence. I would like to say we spent some time in La Malbaie but truthfully we only came for the garden and left immediately afterwards.
We had no trouble finding Les Quatre Vents and the organization was very impressive, with lots of volunteers helping out. We had bought our tickets for one of the mandatory guided tours in December, but I was not quick enough to secure a spot on the one English language tour of the day so we were committed to 3 hours in French beginning at 8:30 AM. And it was 3 hours in French that we got. We had brief hopes that one of the volunteers who chatted with us at the ticket area might lead our group but it was not to be.
I guess I thought it wouldn’t really matter whether I could understand the guide or other people on the tour since I’ve never been very good with group garden visits (they get in the way of appreciating the plants, the space, my personal reactions to it all). But it did matter when we were supposed to pay attention to the (long-winded) guide and were stopped from wandering off by another volunteer, when I couldn’t understand what the other people on our tour were doing (many were wearing safari-type hats and kept taking pictures of the whole group), and when it got tiresome trying to separate out enthusiastic ramblings (“C’est sublime au printemps!”) from instruction. At the end they all sang a traditional song to the guide and other volunteer while we looked on in confusion. It was a strange cultural immersion that left me at a remove from a garden of intimate spaces and beautiful long views.
And yet, it is a truly remarkable garden and obviously well cared for. If you have been to Stonecrop then you might understand why we went in with low expectations, but the buildings were all beautifully kept up and the plantings lush and healthy. Cabot’s use of hedging and large scale perennial plantings (particularly for shade), plus a clever layout, makes it an astonishing garden to move through since the rooms are very enclosed and each quite different from the last. One of the best discoveries was that almost every room features water – ponds, pools or rills, plus the stunning waterfall in the Japanese garden. I want to re-read ‘The Greater Perfection’ now that I have walked through the whole thing and gotten a better sense of the scale. When you’re there certain rooms seem so much smaller than in photographs but the views seem longer than ever.
Unlike Stonecrop, Les Quatre Vents is free of plant identification labels. I was a bit sad that our guide warned upfront that he did not know specific names of plants (which was basically the only question I practiced asking in French ahead of time). Accordingly, he did not seem interested in pointing out special plants (of which there were many!!) or giving us much time to closely examine anything (would have killed to spend another 20 minutes in the primrose dell). It was luck, and the sudden relenting of the volunteer in charge of making sure we were on time and didn’t stray, that I managed to get some pictures of the beautiful primroses still in bloom and catch a glimpse of some dainty cypripediums.
At the end of a quick three hours, after we emerged from the singing circle and walked across the field to our car, we proceeded to spend the rest of the day discussing our impressions of the garden and the tour (two very separate things). My uncle asked at one point whether I preferred Chanticleer or Les Quatre Vents and honestly it’s hard to say. Chanticleer is easy to fall in love with (although I was so sad to read in ‘Hummelo’ that Piet Oudolf hated it). The experience of going to Chanticleer and being able to move along the gently undulating paths at your own pace with no one distracting you from the incredible plants and softly defined spaces- I now see it as the privilege it is. Les Quatre Vents is a harder garden to access in all senses of the word. The spaces are quite formal in tone and overwhelmingly, almost imposingly, enclosed through tall hedging or green walls of plants – being herded through them in a group does not make the garden feel any warmer. But Les Quatre Vents does picturesque like nothing else and takes you all over the world when it comes to influences – it’s clear Francis Cabot had excellent taste. Pitting them against one another is like choosing between decadent chocolate cake and a Pierre Herme macaron – both delicious but one is indulgently pleasurable while the other provides you intense bursts of flavour and sometimes makes you work for it.
Ultimately we were happy to have made the trip – Les Quatre Vents is undoubtedly beautiful in a way I’m not sure you can see anywhere else in Canada, at least on this scale. Many thanks must go to the Cabot family who continue to open the garden to the public and maintain it at such a high level, as well as the volunteers who make the day possible. They are very gracious hosts. My only suggestion would be to offer a silent tour – I would wake up even earlier to try and get tickets for it.