The Garden Tour: Three Different Gardens and Experiences

May 22, 2017

I have always thought that viewing a private garden as part of a guided tour is awkward at best, regimented at worst.

In most small tours, the maker of the garden is there. Sometimes they are on the sidelines eyeballing visitors, while others are front and center, openly answering questions.  But they are always making sure (with a sideways glance or a well-placed comment) that no one steps on the delicate ground cover or choice alpine plant. There is a feeling of being in someone’s sacred space, experiencing their passions and also their frustrations.

There may be a million reasons why a gardener would allow hoards of admirers or curiosity seekers to tromp through their personal piece of heaven.  It may be ego, charity, genuine interest in feedback or sharing of knowledge, or even sincere and well-placed pride—every garden tour is different and visitors can usually sense the maker’s motivation.

-Ailsa Francis

Les Quatres Vents, Quebec, Canada
An allee of trees and a path at Les Jardins de Quatres-Vents.

Francis Cabot’s Les Quatres Vents Garden in Quebec, Canada

A few years ago, a friend and I booked a trip to visit the late Francis Cabot’s celebrated garden known as Les Jardins de Quatres-Vents (translated as “the four winds”) on the upper shore of the St-Lawrence River, north of Quebec City.

Because this garden is so admired and still in private hands, it opens for only eight tours on four days each summer, and tickets go on sale six months in advance.  The response is overwhelming, and the guided tours are always sold out, with about 20 participants in each circuit.

Visitors, or shall I say, Cabot “disciples,” are led in an orchestrated dance through the 15-hectare property: starting on the dirt road, lined by poplars, by the house, through the kitchen garden, and out into each garden “room” throughout the grounds.  The pace is quick, and dawdling is not encouraged, as there are guides to move along the stragglers.

On this garden tour, it is the “ghost” of Francis Cabot who accompanies you, and it feels like less of a personal experience and more of a classical odyssey.

crocosmia, lilies and berberis in woodland garden at Les Quatres Vents, Quebec, Canada
Lilies, hosta, and crocosmia at Frank Cabot’s garden in Quebec.

Francis Cabot was a self-taught horticulturalist and a showman.  His garden celebrates artistry, whether it was his own or the very best stonemasons, Japanese craftsmen, garden designers or plantsmen he could hire.  Indeed, Cabot championed the idea of the “open garden” and, in that spirit, founded the Garden Conservancy in 1989 in the United States.  He loved to show off his garden and those of others who deserved attention and praise.

Surrounded by other tour participants, whispering in hushed tones, you recognize that you are not simply seeing a garden, you are seeing it through a mist of adoration.

The feeling that comes with this type of assembly, bordering on a religious gathering, is made all the more dramatic when you find yourself being funneled through narrow openings, looking at the same view, not unlike a visitor to a cathedral.  Moving as a group, the scale of everything shifts so that monumental structures, long borders, and expansive views make sense.  It’s almost as though this garden only becomes alive when a moving and breathing collection of appreciative souls passes through it as one.

hanging rope bridge at Les Quatres Vents, Quebec, Canada
A wooden rope bridge spans a wooded ravine within the Cabot Gardens in La Malbaie in Quebec, CA.

Margaret Roach’s Garden in Copake Falls, NY

Margaret Roach’s garden surrounds her clapboard house on a lot that feels like it could be in a clearing in the woods but is actually part of a sleepy community in the picturesque Hudson Valley about two hours north of Manhattan. 

She moved permanently away from her hectic life in New York City in 2007, and now her 2.3-acre garden is her full-time canvas. Roach “gardens” in every square inch of her property, whether it is intensively in her vegetable patch or more loosely along the perimeter, she dialogues with plants and wildlife everywhere. 

hellebores at Margaret Roach's Garden in Copake Falls, NY by Margaret Roach
A flowering hillside at Margaret Roach’s Garden in Copake Falls, NY.

As a plant lover, she has a gift for combining plants that have spectacular foliage and usefulness as groundcovers.  Her interest in texture, shape, and form doesn’t stop with annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, and tender plants–she also has an eclectic collection of rustic glazed and terracotta pots and garden ornaments. 

Her garden tours are always immensely successful, with dozens of people streaming up her driveway, along her pathways, across her lawn, and up to the top of the hill where the view of her house and the rest of the property make you feel as though you might be the only ones there.

The scale here is intimate, and the tour is autonomous. Even when you are walking amongst other admirers, the connection between you and the garden is deeply personal.  So much so that it feels as though this might even be your own house and garden on its most perfect day.

Margaret Roach's Garden in Copake Falls, NY by Margaret Roach

Her carefully curated plant vignettes are best appreciated up close, and views beckon you to approach them from afar.  I felt quite at home here, and my mind wandered despite the lingering crowds, who I’m sure didn’t want to leave either.

As I walked around, I contemplated the robust and floriferous honeysuckle vine embracing a porch post and wondered why it wasn’t covered in mildew like those I have grown; I appreciated the massing of Siberian cypress and its lacy effect on the slope above the frog pond; and I wondered how many times Roach bends over the same pond, rescuing drowning dragonflies or bumblebees.

The garden here speaks to the visitor in the language of the seasons in terms of duties and plant glories. This is likely in part due to the way in which Roach chronicles monthly garden chores in her blog, where she is generous and genuine, but also because her own hand is everywhere: the dried gourds on the windowsill, the bright red wheelbarrow leaning against the shed, the birdbath planted with succulents and the cluster of Rex begonias in pots nestled next to each other.

As for Roach herself, while crowds bustle back and forth, she stands unassumingly nearby, identifying the must-have plants by their botanical names, describing how she makes her compost, rides her mower, tries to keep out deer, and makes a living as a gardener, writer, and blogger.  Genuinely touched and incredulous that some of us would travel hours to visit, she seems shy but earnest and more than willing to talk about her picture-perfect life here.

paige Dicky's garden at Duck Hill by karl gercens
Page Dickey’s Duck Hill garden in North Salem, NY.

Page Dickey’s Duck Hill in North Salem, NY

Page Dickey’s garden at Duck Hill is no longer in her hands, but I had the pleasure of visiting it before she “downsized” and moved away to Connecticut. Sitting under a tree near the house, she was happy to be approached by any of us, but it was clear that this “Martha Stewart-esque” garden had finally become more than she and her husband could manage in their ‘mature’ years. *

Duck Hill is perched on a hillside overlooking the well-heeled town of North Salem, New York. Dickey’s three-acre garden is mostly formal, or at least formal in intent, with symmetrical garden rooms pushing out from the house, framed by immaculately manicured hedges.

The pairs of clipped boxwoods marking the entrances to these garden rooms are swollen to giant proportions, making squeezing through almost impossible. The pastel colored, old-fashioned plants that filled these spaces were buzzing with bees and heavy-laden with scent.

Courteous visitors tried to give others space, maneuvering along shrinking crushed stone pathways to make the experience more private. Amongst both voluptuous and dainty roses, flowering dogwood, dwarf Korean lilac, buddleia, and perennials like catmint, peony, and salvia, we took it all in but also kept an eye downward so as not to step on a jaunty but unexpected Verbascum.

Touring Dickey’s garden was like touring the progression of a gardening life. Dickey lived here for 33 years, and the garden shows her early and exhausting gardening aspirations (privet hedges that require weekly clipping) as well as what I imagine had become another albatross—a huge composting area that might rival something you’d find at an expansive English country estate.

Indeed, the beds were a charming combination of design and plant volunteers, but the walk through the shady glen at the rear of the property, at once loose and cool, gave the visitor a sense of where Dickey’s sensibility might be headed.

The woodland walk was a breath of fresh air in terms of temperature and design—a meandering journey that was forgiving and comfortable to negotiate. Although it was clearly planted, it appeared to be entirely natural.

From this part of the property, visitors could see much of the rest: the formal vegetable garden, the meadow, the swimming pool, and the hedged gardens and trees surrounding the house, in some ways consuming it.  It did not surprise me to read that Dickey and her husband, three dogs, and other members of her animal menagerie finally set themselves free and moved to an 18th-century meeting house for the Methodist Episcopal church—simplicity.

After touring several incredible gardens, I have concluded that some only retain their mantle of magnificence when an adoring assembly, moving as one, tours them.  On the other hand, more deeply personal gardens benefit from the crowds dispersing and each admirer finding their way and making their connections.

Story: Ailsa Francis

Photography: courtesy of Les Quatres Vents, Margaret Roach, and Karl Gercens.

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  1. Cheryl says:

    Loved the tour of the gardens and especially enjoyed learning about Margaret Roach. In fact so much, that I have already signed up for her blog and podcast. Also, fun to get a peak into the gardens of the founder of the Garden Conservancy. A very worthy non-profit that does a great job sharing some many gardens and helping to save gardens.

  2. Ailsa says:

    Cheryl, glad you enjoyed it. If you’re really keen, you can visit Margaret’s garden on the Garden Conservancy Open Garden days. Find info here:

  3. Linus says:

    Thanks for the story. Can you do a Garden Tour story for the Washington DC area?

    I enjoy Margaret’s “A Way to Garden” podcasts; really good info. Her garden was featured on “Growing a Greener World” so for other views of her garden:

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