These English-style gardens have been a national historic site of Canada since 1995. They cover an area of 18 hectares and are located in the Grand-Métis municipality of Québec, at the entrance to the Gaspé Peninsula. The site includes a villa and six separate gardens that showcase 3,000 plant varieties, including 500 types of flowers. Reford Gardens is internationally renowned as an exceptional example of horticultural art.
Gardens Designer Elsie Reford
Reford Gardens were created by Elsie Reford (1872–1976). Née Mary Elsie Stephen Meighen, she was the daughter of Robert Meighen (1837–1911) of Montréal, an Irish immigrant and director of the largest milling company in the Commonwealth. Elsie came from a privileged background and enjoyed all the leisure activities available on the estate of her maternal uncle, George Stephen (Lord Mount Stephen). This estate, called Estevan Lodge, was located at the confluence of the Mitis and St. Lawrence rivers. Elsie went there every summer for horseback riding, hunting, and salmon fishing, an activity she particularly enjoyed. In 1918, she was given the estate by Lord Mount Stephen.
However, surgery forced Elsie to give up some of her more physically demanding activities. On the recommendation of her doctor, she decided to take up gardening and, in 1926, embarked on a great adventure, laying out her first gardens and overseeing the early stages of development. The gardens covered over 20 acres and would take about ten years to complete.
Creating the gardens was a daunting challenge. The soil was poor and the nearest nurseries were hundreds of kilometres away, making it difficult to acquire plants. Despite the clay-rich soil and harsh climate, Reford succeeded in sowing the Himalayan blue poppies, azaleas and rhododendrons, and walks lined with lilies, roses, and peonies that built the reputation of the site. Truly the ruler of her domain, Elsie designed the gardens on her own, without the help of a landscape architect. Over three decades, from 1926 to 1958, she devoted her energy to the transformation of what was once a spruce forest. She enlisted the help of local farmers and fishing guides to make her ambitious plan a reality.
Elsie was the designer of the gardens, but the photographer was her husband Robert Wilson Reford, heir to a maritime shipping and importing company. Over the thirty years of this extraordinary adventure, he captured images of the plants, site architecture, and changing landscapes. He set up a darkroom in Estevan Lodge, thereby providing Reford Gardens with an archival collection of more than 5,000 photographs, many described by Elsie herself.
From an area that was untouched by human hand except for a flagpole, a cedar hedge, and a spruce-lined driveway, this tenacious woman and her team of gardeners created six magnificent gardens.
Reford Gardens Today
Reford Gardens was opened to the general public in 1962 after the government, seeing an opportunity to develop tourism in Eastern Quebec, acquired the site in 1961. Visitors can admire over 3,000 plant varieties and, throughout their visit, discover beautiful contemporary artwork that blends perfectly with the history of the gardens designed by Elsie Reford.
Estevan Lodge is a 37-room historic home built in 1887 and expanded in 1926 according to plans by Montréal architect Alexander Tilloch Galt Durnford. It houses the permanent exhibit “Estevan Lodge: A Vacation Haven,” which traces the history of the Reford family, presenting objects belonging to them and photographs taken over the years by Robert Wilson Reford. It shows all the phases of development of the gardens and presents an overview of the original estate’s natural environment and inhabitants.
In addition, Reford Gardens is a venue for special events such as open-air concerts and temporary exhibits.
On July 6, 1995, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada declared Reford Gardens a national historic site of Canada. Since 2000, Reford Gardens has hosted the International Garden Festival each summer. This event gives landscape architects the opportunity to create contemporary gardens.
In 2012, Reford Gardens’ 50th anniversary was celebrated with various activities all summer long: musical brunches, literary teas, culinary evenings, exhibits, and circus performances. These celebrations confirmed not only Reford Gardens’ value as a cultural site and venue for events of all types but also Elsie Reford’s remarkable cultural and natural legacy.
In 2013, Reford Gardens was designated a heritage site by the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec.