Gardens - Featured Gardens

A Quebec artist tames a bluff

By
Larry Hodgson
Photography by
Harold Fortin

Turn a steep cliff into a verdent garden with thumbnail terraces, tumbling cascades and stone-edged planting pockets

Seeking the advice of friends who gardened, Teresa slowly expanded her palette of plants. The lawn started to disappear, transformed bit by bit into sloping flower beds. But those initial beds kept breaking loose and spilling down onto the street. With the help of a stonemason, and using the stone rubble accumulated at the base of the cliff out back, she added a curved retaining wall, then another. Later, more stone and debris were used to level the ground behind yet another retaining wall to create a small terrace where Teresa and Gilles could actually sit outdoors on solid ground—without putting lawn chairs on the driveway. The first of three water gardens was created in front of one of the ground-floor windows. Eventually, two more ponds (really one, measuring two by four metres but pinched in the middle to form two sections) were added nearby; the front yard was starting to take shape. Aquatic, semi-aquatic and bog plants such as primulas, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and dwarf cattails adorn the ponds, as do Teresa's favourite tropicals: white callas, taro and red-flowering cannas.

Teresa could have easily stopped there, but the cliff out back beckoned. She began to transform it into a series of superimposed planting pockets dotted with mini-terraces wherever there was room, all linked by stone stairs. The upper terraces are so high, they look down onto the roof.

A waterfall cascades from the uppermost part of the lot, level by level, down around the terraces and beneath the veranda along the side of the house. It disappears under a path, then re-emerges to snake across the upper terraces in the front yard, linking the ponds. From the lowest pond, the water is pumped back to the upper waterfalls.

Teresa also makes abundant use of containers—another way of squeezing more gardening space out of what would normally be bare rock. Many of the mini-terraces on the back cliff become barely more than footpaths in the summer because of the numerous containers that cover them.

Not all is stone and water, though. Teresa has been actively selecting and testing plants for her unique gardening conditions. And she's had to learn the hard way which plants will and will not do well.

There is no direct sun in the backyard, and precious little on the southeast side of the house, which is screened by forest. Many hostas, which most Canadian gardeners take for granted for shady spots, don't survive the winter because the soil freezes solid, as the surrounding rock retains too much cold. Teresa divides the few hostas that do succeed to fill in nooks and crannies in shady spots. Oddly, while hostas freeze, many azaleas from the Northern Lights series (such as Rhododendron 'White Lights' and 'Golden Lights') thrive and provide spring colour. In summer, irises and daylilies reign in the sloping curbside garden, the only one in full sun. These include bearded irises such as the rich black-purple ‘Superstition' and royal purple 'Royal Intrigue', variegated Japanese iris (Iris ensata 'Variegata'), with violet-blue blossoms, and a whole host of daylilies in yellows, pinks, oranges and near reds that bloom successively from June until September. Here, she's also been experi­menting, so far successfully, with hardy magnolias (such as the Magnolia stellata hybrids and Little Girl series) and tree peonies, and pushes the limits with fruits, trying many that shouldn't be hardy in her Zone 4b climate. There is a three-metre fig tree (which she buries in a trench each winter), as well as cherries, plums, pears, and even a lonely apricot that survives the cold, but inevitably sees its flowers blasted by frost in the spring.

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